Ravel & Scriabin: Piano Music (CD review)

HJ Lim, piano. Warner Classics 50999 9 14509 2 0.

The young Korean pianist HJ Lim charged onto the musical scene with a popular YouTube video of Rachmaninov and Chopin, followed by an appearance in Paris where she performed the complete Beethoven sonatas, followed still by an EMI Classics recording of the complete sonatas. When I reviewed the EMI set, I found Ms. Lim’s playing wonderfully virtuosic, her performances remarkably intelligent, if highly idiosyncratic, and her personal appearance strikingly photogenic. It was certainly a winning combination for any performer, and it’s no wonder Warner Classics (the new owners of EMI Classics) wanted to follow up the Beethoven with this album of music by Ravel and Scriabin.

The thing is, I thought Ms. Lim’s playing of the Beethoven sonatas a tad too eccentrically clinical for my taste and not quite introspective enough (at least compared to the many older pianists who have essayed the field). It was as though she were using the music to show off her virtuosic talents rather than use her talents to show off the music. Anyway, I found her performances of these Ravel and Scriabin pieces a bit more to my taste. 

Ms. Lim begins the program with the little Valses nobles et sentementales by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) where she demonstrates that she is still a belter, a tad heavy-handed in the bigger moments yet able to communicate the French composer’s soft, dreamy atmosphere when necessary. Nonetheless, under Lim these semi-waltzes never fall into sentimentality but maintain a steadfast twentieth-century mood of defiance. There is much variety in Ravel's colorful, evocative tone pictures, and Ms. Lim exploits the best of it with delicacy and precision. She isn't quite as dreamy as some pianists in Ravel's music, yet she communicates a quiet grace.

Next up we find several brief piano sonatas (Nos. 4 and 5), a couple of poems (Nos. 1 and 2), and a waltz (Op. 38), all by Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). Under Lim, No. 4 comes off with a gentle touch, No. 5 with a more fiery yet vaguely erotic tone, the poems properly contrasting, and the waltz "smooth and easy" as Scriabin himself described it. Each of them comes wrapped in Scriabin's usual Romantic mysticism, although Ms. Lim is careful to include his more fiery side as well.

The program concludes with one of Ravel's most-famous pieces on the disc, La Valse. Ravel had intended it in its orchestral form as the basis for a ballet, which the impresario Sergei Diaghilev rejected, calling it "a portrait of a ballet...a picture of a ballet," but not a ballet. In any case, audiences have loved immensely both the orchestral version of La Valse and the piano version we get here. More important to this review, Ms. Lim addresses the piece with intensity, power, and sensitivity. Ravel's ironic representation of the traditional waltz appears not lost on Lim, who well captures the work's intricacies.

Some listeners may continue to find Ms. Lim's playing a bit too analytical for them. Still, one can hardly doubt her personal commitment in these performances and the care with which handles every note and phrase.

Producer Andrew Cornall and engineer Philip Siney recorded the music for Warner Classics at The Friary, Liverpool, England in 2012. The recording does a good job capturing the sound of Ms. Lim’s Yamaha SFX 6295700 piano; I’m just not sure it’s the best-sounding piano in the world. While very clear, the Yamaha doesn’t seem to have the rich, mellifluous tones of a Steinway, instead producing what seems to me a slightly more strident sound. In any case, the sound of the recording is very clean, with excellent transparency and a quick transient response, matching the type of performances Ms. Lim provides. The Liverpool location displays a moderate miking distance and a modest degree of resonance, helping the piano to come through with excellent transparency most of the time, with only a few mild instances of cool or severe sound. The piano also appears well positioned between the speakers, never stretching the full length between them. Because the overall lucidity of the recording agrees with Ms. Lim’s reasoned approach to the scores, as I say, it’s no doubt a good fit.

JJP

To listen to brief excerpts from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa