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Time was, complete cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas were a rarity, achieved through the marriage of experience and single- (one might even say bloody-) mindedness. The mental and physical strength required in equal measure made completing the sonatas the preserve of neither the young nor the elderly. In recent years, however, cycles are increasingly being tackled by younger pianists, such as Louis Lortie (Chandos) or, most successfully, by Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi); Martin Roscoe’s recently completed set (Deux-Elles) bucks the trend. EMI’s newcomer is, extraordinarily, a debut recording for the South Korean HJ Lim.

The first thing to note is that Lim’s cycle is not complete, omitting, for reasons clearly stated, the Op 49 pair that pre-dates Nos 1-3, Op 2. So we get 30, not 32 sonatas and – thanks to Lim’s swift tempi and some tiny inter-track pauses – just eight discs (Lewis required ten).

Lim programmes the sonatas thematically into four two-disc ‘volumes’, each one pairing contrasting aspects of Beethoven’s expressive world. Illustrative titles describe the connections between the selected works: ‘Heroic Ideals, Eternal Feminine – Youth’ for the First, the cumbersome ‘Assertion of an inflexible personality, Nature’ for the Second and so on. These divisions arise from Lim’s own research into Beethoven’s scores and letters, informing her interpretations in the context of each volume. In her booklet notes, Lim keenly draws parallels between similarly constructed movements in different sonatas, such as the rondos of Opp 2 No 2, 7, 22 and 31 No 1 (which Lim holds to be indicative of Goethe’s eternal feminine), or the perpetuum mobile finales of Opp 26, 27 No 1 and 54.

While these juxtapositions throw up some interesting connections and foreshadowings, I am not entirely convinced by Lim’s programming overall, despite the arguments laid out in her ample notes. Her commitment to the music and its communication is evident throughout on both the keyboard and page (with some purple prose and fascinating explications of the music’s origins and intentions), but some decisions are questionable. For example, separating the final three sonatas – which admittedly each have their own opus number – proves less instructive than it might have been since Nos 30 and 31 stay together; elsewhere, trilogies such as those in Opp 2, 10 and 31 are undivided (as are pairings like Op 27). Opening the cycle with the Hammerklavier was certainly brave, but, with No 11 and Les adieux following, it scrambles the timelines of the opening ‘Heroic Ideals’ sub-volume. (Lim’s notes follow a different sequence, anyway!)

Ultimately, though, it is the quality of Lim’s playing that is the primary consideration, and the cycle confirms her as an executant of great technical ability and some insight, with an undoubted empathy for the music.

Her generally swift tempi do sometimes underplay some of the expressive opportunities the sonatas offer – though this is something experience may adjust in time. Yet the fleetness of the Hammerklavier is mesmerising, and provides a very different listening experience to accounts by those who hold Beethoven’s metronome markings to be wayward. Her accounts of the ‘Moonlight’ – with the rapidly rippling textures of the Adagio cantabile rather more of a psychological landscape than the impressionistic one so often presented – and its hell-for-leather finale, the Pathétique and the Op 31 set are compelling, while Opp 101, 109 and 110 attain incandescence.

The final volume works musically, whatever my reservations about the programmatic-thematic context might be, coupling Nos 24, 27, 30 and 31 under the heading ‘Eternal Feminine – Maturity’ and the Pathétique, No 12, the Appassionata and No 32 under ‘Destiny’.

If we compare individual renditions, Lim’s stand up well to comparisons for the most part, as for example in the evergreen triptych of Pathétique/‘Moonlight’/Appassionata, largely because her readings avoid sentimentality or the overly traditional (compare Wilhelm Kempff’s classic readings, which were my introduction to Beethoven’s sonatas). In the ‘Waldstein’, she perhaps misses a shade of the nobility that others, such as Lewis, have found in the music, but in Nos 30-32 she surpasses Freddy Kempf, fine though his BIS release remains. Not for Lim the expansive reach of an Edith Vogel or Claudio Arrau.

As a cycle, leaving aside the omission of the Op 49 pair, hers is as coherent as any set down this century – just youthful and intense. Lewis’s measured set remains to my mind the finest modern set available, a sublime achievement. With Lewis, one forgets the player, hearing just the composer; with Lim, the experience is about the passion of music-making, whether that be the composer in the act of creation or the performer as re-creator.

EMI’s sound is very fine indeed, catching the fine qualities of the Yamaha instrument and Lim’s by turns graceful and powerful touch. The recordings have an immediacy, the instrument placed quite forward, but comfortably so, as if one were just one or two rows back.

GUY RICKARDS Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing