on 20 April 2015
Imagine a precocious child with no musical background is shown the movie “Beethoven Lives Upstairs.” She’s enchanted with this strange and wonderful composer. She ardently wishes she could play the piano. Suddenly and miraculously, she can. A piano appears before her. On the music rack are the complete Beethoven sonatas. Microphones and a recording engineer are at the ready. In a burst of enthusiasm, she sits down and plays every sonata. (Minus two.) Her playing sometimes goes awry, but she’s too aflutter to notice. The result might sound like HJ Lim’s traversal of the Beethoven piano sonatas.
In Lim’s facile view, Beethoven was a key thumping wild man. But that’s a misleading cliché. Musicians of his time repeatedly commented on the nobility of his playing. He was, they also said, the greatest adagio player of his day. And his architectural sense was peerless. It’s precisely these virtues lacking in Lim’s set.
Hearing these oddly disjointed performances, it’s hard to know what some are raving about. Problems are apparent right out of the gate with the first movement of Op. 2, No. 1. The playing sounds cobbled together from a batch of takes done at various tempos. Further, fast passages are often diffuse and anemic. And this pervades the entire set. Indeed, the most damning criticism of this set is that it sounds insufficiently practiced. Experienced musicians know that a piece can be learned to where it’s almost but not quite there—most of it goes well, but there are still awkward bits that disrupt the natural flow. This is how Lim sounds. Yes, there are patches of fine playing, suggesting she can get around the keys. But there are too many stilted hesitations that make no sense. In any music, such a flaw is a big problem. In Beethoven, the supreme master of musical narrative, it’s fatal.
Also troubling are defects surprising in a concert artist. One is Lim’s aversion to keeping a beat. Of course, not everything needs rigid precision. But surely the Op. 101 second movement (Lebhaft, marschmäßig) demands something more steady than the herky-jerky reading Lim imposes on it. Or consider the Presto from Op. 10 No. 2. This should be a delightful romp whose effect depends on its perpetual motion. Lim, however, injects wee indecisive delays that sap the momentum. Further, she has an annoying habit of suddenly slowing down and then speeding up into fast passages. An egregious example is when she hits the Appassionata’s third movement coda. Here she comes to a crashing halt on the half notes chords (holding them for twice their notated value) and then fitfully lurches her way out of them. How Lim squares this lead-footed effect with the score’s “presto” marking is a mystery.
Equally troubling, Lim cleaves to a “one size fits all” approach throughout, regardless of what piece she’s playing. She has a habit of pausing on downbeats, which is annoying in pieces that should dance. She often also ignores rests and note stemming that convey phrasing and articulation, making a gooey sludge of lines that, with more attentive playing, would sound almost like speech.
In a quick survey of the five star reviews, many praise Lim’s fast tempos. (Some claim she’s following Beethoven’s metronome markings, apparently unaware that he gave them for only one of his piano sonatas.) Is unbridled speed the hallmark of a great performance? Do we apply that criterion to any other performing art? For example, do we revere actors who can recite lines the fastest? By that daft standard, auctioneers would be our best actors. But since we’re talking about speed, it’s worth noting that Ronald Brautigam, Michael Korstick, and Stewart Goodyear all play the Appassionata third movement faster and with more assurance than Lim. So why the fuss over Lim?
Recording all the Beethoven piano sonatas (or most of them) is a massive undertaking, and I don’t minimize its difficulty. But other pianists have done it without sounding as though they’re in over their heads. Lim should at least rise to that standard. Yet try as I might to hear a bold and thoughtful voice, I instead hear a callow artist who’s rushed into a role for which she’s unready.
It bodes ill that Lim’s belief in her readiness to record the Beethoven sonatas falls so far short of reality. One must question how well she knows the legacy of Beethoven recordings. Does she honestly think her playing can stand alongside Wilhelm Backhaus, Annie Fischer, Claude Frank, Emil Gilels, Friedrich Gulda, or Sviatoslav Richter? Nor does her playing compare favorably to lesser known but worthy sets by Abdel Rahman El Bacha, Maria Grinberg, Eric Heidsieck, and John Lill. Even among more recent sets—Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Ronald Brautigam, Stewart Goodyear, Michael Korstick, and Andrea Lucchesini come to mind—her playing falls short. And considering that some fine sets can be had for a pittance, even the low price of Lim’s set is no incentive.
What’s the thinking that went into this release? Do the decision makers at Warner Classics believe this set is in any way comparable to other distinguished Beethoven piano sonata complete sets? If so, then they’ve exposed themselves as musical moths, drawn to glitter rather than artistry. There’s a prevailing sense of slapdash haste to get this onto the market, regardless of its flaws. In a better world, someone would’ve nixed this project before it started, and nudged Lim into something more congenial to her way of playing.
This entire project reeks of marketing. Take, for example, the gushing over completing this set at age 24. Well, both Gulda and Barenboim began their first sets at roughly the same age. Unlike Lim, however, they were wise enough to take time. Lim, in her haste to grab a shiny prize, sprinted through her recording sessions so she could claim to be the youngest to record all the Beethoven piano sonatas. What a boffo advertising coup! Let’s ignore that she didn’t record all the sonatas. And let’s not carp over how the music suffered in the process. Let’s also ignore that an even younger Mélodie Zhao beat Lim’s record a mere two years later. Just keep the publicity train chugging. Maybe the ballyhoo will distract everyone from noticing that nary a thought was given to actual artistry.
To be clear, showmanship isn’t the problem. Leonard Bernstein was a showman from head to toe, but his showmanship was welded to an iron integrity. I recall a Young People’s Concert in which he led the New York Philharmonic in a deliberately overwrought performance of Haydn. He then turned to the audience and said: “So you think that’s beautiful—what you’ve just been listening to? Well, I’ve got news for you, it isn’t. Now you may have found the noises we’ve been making very pretty ones, perhaps even moving. But they are not the sound of Haydn. They are the sound of an orchestra showing off.” Bernstein was a showman, but he didn’t pander. That’s a distinction Lim and her enablers would do well to learn.
The shame of it is that Lim might have done something worthy. She has ideas, some of them possibly good. But she doesn’t hone them into a compelling and coherent narrative. Everything here sounds like a brainstorming session, where ideas are tossed about without yet knowing what to do with them. So we’re left to sift through her rough-hewn ideas and imagine the good she might have done. She’s too enthralled with charisma to heed the rigors of real artistry.
This set is a potential career killer. It reveals a concert artist who lacks self-awareness. In the first flush of public acclaim, it’s easy for a young player to mistake hype for a validation of one’s artistry. One hopes Lim will stop listening to those who fancy her an artistic Midas. Somewhere, dear God, let there be knowing voices who offer advice on how to become something more than a media darling. Perhaps Lim may find the wisdom to heed them.
Or perhaps not. In an interview Lim declared: “The most important thing in art is to express oneself.” I wish she wasn’t so sure of this, because it’s not true. (Toddlers throwing tantrums are expressing themselves.) It’s far more important to say something worth saying. If Lim better understood this, she might discover that Beethoven’s music has a higher purpose than her navel-gazing. But that may be asking too much of her. It might be that Lim knows her particular audience well, and cheerfully gives them what they want. If so, then she’ll continue to flip her hair, stare soulfully at the ceiling, and maul rhythm and tempo in the name of self-expression. Everyone aboard the bandwagon can go on their bedazzled way.
And Beethoven can go to hell.