Review: HJ Lim’s Beethoven Piano Sonata Cycle – Do You Get What You Pay For?

Tomorrow sees the release of a set of Beethoven’s complete* piano sonatas by Korean pianist HJ Lim. While it’s going to be released in a week on 8 CDs from EMI, this set is curiously released on the iTunes Store at the astoundingly low price of $9.99. (The CD release is currently priced at around $37 on Amazon, and Amazon has since added an MP3 version for, currently, $9.49.)

I stuck an asterisk in the first paragraph next to the word “complete,” because it is important to point out that this set only contains 30 of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, leaving out sonatas 19 and 20. In the notes to this set, Lim says:

When it came to the sonatinas Op.49 Nos. 1 & 2, educational pieces that were composed to train pupils and published against the composer’s wish and well before the Sonata Op.2 No.1 in F minor which he wanted to be published as his first ever sonata and indeed, here, the Beethovenian signature is strongly impregnated, I chose to respect the latter’s intention by separating them from the main cycle.

This is an interesting choice, as every other pianist does perform these two sonatas, even though they are short works, only two movements each.

In any case, Lim takes an interesting approach to the works. Instead of them being on each CD in more or less chronological order, she has grouped them by “theme,” with groupings such as “Heroic Ideals,” “Nature,” “Assertion of an inflexible personality,” and “Destiny.” (With the download, however, the sonatas are not grouped at all, so listeners will need to consult the liner notes to spot the groupings.) There is much hubris in Lim’s approach, and this is apparent in the notes, where the first few paragraphs mention “the Creator,” “Prometheus,” and “Napoleon.” Lim seems to be one for bombast. Writing about the Op. 106 sonata, the Hammerklavier, she says:

While the aesthetic laws of music are a microcosmic interpretation inspired by the secret laws of the universe, and a musical idea carries a certain universality, the first explosive chords of the first movement could be described as the Big Bang, the creation of the world, the trigger of all sonata movements human conscience…

Lim also plays fast; very fast. She justifies this by the tempo indications of the Hammerklavier, saying that “thanks to these tempo indications given by the composer himself, we can also place the other sonatas, using these works as a reference with their clear tempo markings.” Her tempi are noticeably faster than most pianists, and this gives the music a bit of a virtuosic sound, especially in movements with very fast runs like the scherzo of Sonata no. 10. Whether each listener appreciates these tempi is up to them, but she plays these works in 8 hours and 55 minutes, or about 40 minutes faster than Ronald Brautigam in his set on Bis (the fastest set I have), 1 hour and 40 minutes faster than Paul Lewis’s set on Harmonia Mundi, and 2 hours and 14 minutes faster than Daniel Barenboim’s first set on EMI. (Some of these differences may or may not be due to the inclusion of repeats; I haven’t compared them to that level. Note that I am not including the “missing” sonatas 20 and 21 in the timings of the other sets.)

What I find most disturbing about this set is the sound of the piano. It is a Yamaha CFX, and it sounds like Lin is playing on icicles. This harsh, thin, almost artificial sound, combined with the speed of the playing, makes this set sound very cold and distant. While the technique is there, I hear little emotion, as it seems that the goal here is to be flashy and flamboyant, rather than reflective. Even if the tempi are more “authentic” than what other pianists play, perhaps the tradition of playing more slowly comes from a desire to give the listener more time to appreciate the music. Whether or not it is right or wrong to play this fast is the decades-old debate of “authentic” performance. While playing on a fortepiano, which has less resonance, may justify that speed, playing on a modern piano, in my opinion, does not. (This explains, perhaps, why Ronald Brautigam, who plays on fortepianos, plays these sonatas faster than many other pianists.)

EMI’s approach of selling this set by download so cheaply is interesting. I’m sure that, because of the price, this set will sell well, at least on the iTunes Store. As to whether it’s a set that will last remains to be seen. HJ Lim is a very talented musician, but I would like to hear something more than just flashy playing.

Update: It’s around 2 pm French time, and this set is already #3 on the US iTunes Store. I have to, however, criticize EMI Classics from posting a 5-star review there, especially after EMI, in a post to a classical music newsgroup, stated that the did not post any “fake” reviews of this set on Amazon. I guess using the name EMIClassics for their iTunes review is transparent, but it’s still pretty lame.

Update 2: Just when this article went live on the TechHive web site the set was #1 on the classical charts on the iTunes Store. But it has not broken in to the top 200 overall album sales chart. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is, however, #155 on that chart.

Update 3: Someone I know is reporting that at least two of the files – the final movements of sonatas 21 and 26 – are truncated. I got my files before release directly from EMI, so I don’t have this issue. Is anyone else seeing this problem?

Update 4: One day after release, this set is now #62 in the overall albums chart on the iTunes Store. I wonder if it can move higher, getting into the top ten; that would be a real coup for EMI.

Update 5: It’s six hours later, and the set is #52 in the overall chart. My guess is that if it were highlighted on the main Music page, it would be even higher. I’m going to wager that it reaches the top ten, which would be the first time I can remember a classical album reaching that level on the iTunes Store.

Update 6: Well, it looks like this set peaked around #52, and has been dropping since. On May 25, it’s #95 in the overall chart. Still, this is very impressive for a classical album.