Ludwig van Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas – Volume 1: Heroic Ideals / Eternal Feminine Youth (piano: HJ Lim) Review

Album. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

Pianist Lim tackles these pieces with invention as much as she does with respect.

Daniel Ross 2012

Questions need to be asked before undertaking a complete recording of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. For a start: are you going to finish them? Next: what about all the existing recordings slugging it out to be considered top dog? Finally and, undoubtedly, most importantly: what are you going to do to the sonatas that make them different or new again? HJ Lim has answered all these questions quite comfortably with the first instalment of her attempt. Intriguingly, though, and presumably in an effort to answer the third question, she’s grouped them into themes.

Consequently, we get a first disc that comes under the heading of Heroic Ideals. Which, on the surface of it, doesn’t sound like too adventurous a concept when tackling the composer most synonymous with heroism in the classical repertoire. Looking closely as she does though, precedents to Beethoven’s later hits are found in the opening Sonata No.29 in B flat – and much fun she has in the joyous left-hand stabs of the final Allegro Risoluto.

Lim’s second disc goes under the strange banner of Eternal Feminine Youth and is rather more interesting for it. As she points out in her accompanying essay, Beethoven was fond of the company of women, but this is no series of plinking paeans to the fairer sex. Indeed, kicking off with Sonata No.4 in E flat means that some of that heroic energy spills over beyond its allotted disc. Similarly, the finale to Sonata No.10 is especially sprightly, and the cascading variations of No.14 further escalate the sense of exertion. But how, exactly, are these opuses related to Eternal Feminine Youth, besides being dedicated to a number of Beethoven’s female pupils? Perhaps Lim’s steely expression on the cover tells us a little more – this is as much about attitude as interpretation.

Finishing with the dreaded Moonlight Sonata (No.14) seems like the softest way out when you hear its mournful, familiar melodies (expertly accelerated to let out the maximum amount of melody) in the first movement. However, the finale’s thoroughly brutal exposition and subsequent scattergun conclusion are anything but traditionally ladylike, and prove to be this volume’s highlight. Proving one’s chops at such a young age doesn’t enter into it – Lim tramples nimbly and with invention as much as she does with respect. Volume two ought to be another triumph.

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