Classical CD Reviews

BEETHOVEN: Complete Piano Sonatas – Hj Lim, p. – EMI (8 CDs)
“BEETHOVEN in D” = Piano Sonata Op. 10 No. 3 in D; Sonata Op. 28 in D Major, “Pastoral”; Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 in D Minor, “The Tempest” – Luisa Guembes-Buchanan, p. – Del Aguila
BEETHOVEN: The Violin Sonatas – Barbara Govatos, violin/ Marcantonio Barone, p. – Bridge

Whew! An omnibus review profiling some fine Beethoven playing and some that gets a grade of “needs improvement.”

Published on March 7, 2013

BEETHOVEN: Complete Piano Sonatas – Hj Lim, piano – EMI MS 4649522 (8 CDs), 73:25; 77:25; 58:56; 62:38; 49:43; 79:51; 53:55; 79:57 **1/2:

“BEETHOVEN in D” = Piano Sonata Op. 10 No. 3 in D; Sonata Op. 28 in D Major, “Pastoral”; Sonata Op. 31 No. 2 in D Minor, “The Tempest” – Luisa Guembes-Buchanan, piano – Del Aguila DA 55307, 66:00 ***1/2:

BEETHOVEN: The Violin Sonatas – Barbara Govatos, violin/ Marcantonio Barone, piano – Bridge 9389A/D (4 discs), 55:49; 44:07; 66:06; 62:59 [Distr. by Albany] ***½:

It’s been such an unconscionably long time since I received the first recording for review that the interested parties, if they ever were, are almost certainly not interested to hear what I have to say at this point. So I hope at least some of my readers will find something new and of interest here. First of all, there’s Korean pianist Hj Lim. She’s one of a seemingly endless stream of highly talented, highly photogenic young musicians with which major labels hope to lure the next generation of classical music lovers, supposing such exist. Her credentials, according to her Website, are impressive. She began studies in her home country at the age of three, relocating (at age twelve) to Paris, where she studied with Henri Barda at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse, graduating at fifteen with top honors, including First Prize and the Diplôme de Formation Supérieure.

Again according to the Website, she made the “extraordinary decision to encompass in live concerts the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, performed in Paris in August 2010, in over eight consecutive days [which] created a sensation in the classical music world.” Presumably, this led to EMI’s decision to launch her recording career with a complete traversal of the sonatas. As a result, Hj Lim became “(at the age of 24) the youngest-ever to record the Beethoven complete sonatas.” The website further states that in 2012, this album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Chart for classical music and the Classical iTunes Charts. Which further chastens me for being so much behindhand with my review.

But there is one telling statement here that’s worth addressing: the fact that Hj Lim is the youngest-ever pianist to record all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas. If true, this is a marketing fete to be noted, but it’s not necessarily as extraordinary (or even as fortunate) an occurrence as it appears on first blush. The world must be full to brimming with twenty-something pianists who can play all thirty-two competently enough to cut a fairly decent recording of the same. And then there’s this: Camille Saint-Saëns is a very special case, naturally, but recall the famous story of his debut as pianist at age ten, when he offered to play any of the Beethoven sonatas from memory as an encore. The image of a ten-year-old hammering his way through the Sonata No. 32 in C Minor makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Speaking of No. 32, usually considered the most difficult of the sonatas, happens to receive one of the finer performances among those of the middle and late sonatas in Hj Lim’s traversal. The first movement is well shaped and shaded, with some fine interpretive touches, including the pianist’s plaintive rendering of the tender second melody in the first movement. The development section moves excitingly from the swaggering march-like statement of the first theme to the cataclysm of runs and chords through which Beethoven denatures his theme. Thrilling. But even here, the main problem that haunts the project interjects itself: excessive speed.

It’s a problem that Hj Lim seems to be positioning as an asset, and in some works and in some contexts, of course, celerity does ratchet up the adrenaline. But the truth is that some of the more monumental of the middle and late sonatas—the Appassionata, the Harmmerklavier, and certain other “nameless” ones—seem to suffer more than benefit from the pianist’s snappy tempos. Part of the problem is indefensible: in the fastest passages, Hj Lim simply loses firm articulation, as any mere human being stretched to executant limits will. But another part of the problem is that breakneck speeds limit the ability to bring off special touches of interpretation—or even suggest that the pianist may not really have any special insights and is just playing as fast as possible to dazzle the listener. This seems true in the Appasionata, where, following an interesting interpretation of the first and second movements, we have pretty much a race to the finish—which, I think, Beethoven loses. The opening Allegro ma non troppo is just about as presto as the concluding Presto—which I confess is true of an amazing live recording by Sviatoslov Richter that I had in my collection years ago, but even in a live recording the Russian was capable of injecting master touches that Hj Lim isn’t capable of at present. Interpretive niceties suffer even more in the aforementioned Hammerklavier.

This approach works better and more enjoyably in the early sonatas, and for the most part I’m happy with the results here. Many of the sonatas from the 1790s and early 1800s, including the earliest “name” sonatas (Moonlight, Pathétique, Tempest, Pastorale), come in for treatment that is fresh, impassioned, optimistic—in short, everything they should be. But even here, not all is well. Sonata No. 9 in E Major, one of the most individual and forward-looking of the sonatas from the 1790s (Beethoven thought well enough of it to rescore it for string quartet) gets little more than a hasty run-through, and the articulation problems that are evident in the more difficult late sonatas make a surprising appearance here. Frankly, this is a lousy performance, but then everyone can have an off day. And as I say, for the most part the early sonatas make very attractive listening in Hj Lim’s performances. But as an integral set, this is not at all competitive, given the many sturdy alternatives on the market. However, if EMI sees fit to release this collection as individual CDs, I’d plump for Volumes 3, 5, and 6—right now, the best this young pianist has to offer on disc.

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Moving on to the album by (the unknown-to-me) Luisa Guembes-Buchanan, we have what appears to be a homegrown product. It features an interesting cover illustration by Fernando Guembes Morales and a Spanish translation of the notes by César Delgado-Guembes, who I’m going to assume are family. The recording was produced by Guembes-Buchanan herself and John Weston, who also recorded and mastered it. The most unfortunate feature of this apparently on-the-cheap production is that the sound is studio bound, nowhere near as richly reverberant and alive as the recording EMI accords Hj Lim. Otherwise, however, the performances on the Del Aguila disc are up to snuff and provide an interesting contest to those of Hj Lim. Whereas the Korean pianist is all dash and surface glare, there’s a seasoned quality to the playing of the obviously more mature Guembes-Buchanan.

Born in Lima, she studied at the Conservatorio Nacional de Música in her home country, as well as the Manhattan School of Music and New York and Boston Universities. She taught at Amherst and the New England Conservatory. Currently, Guembes-Buchanan gives master classes and travels the lecture circuit as a musicologist. Given the thoughtful, studied interpretations on this disc, one might almost say they’re a musicologist’s take on Beethoven, but Guembes-Buchanan also has unimpeachable technique and interpretive ideas to share that aren’t just the result of musicological insight but spring from a more fundamental relationship with this music.

As I suggest, Guembes-Buchanan’s performances are almost always more measured than those of the volatile Hj Lim, and yet in individual movements this often amounts to no more than ten seconds’ difference in timing. Yet the music feels appreciably slower because the approach is so different, more cerebral, not to say calculated. Also, Guembes-Buchanan really has a way of getting to the bottom of the keys, producing a firm, very solid tone. I like that. In sum, these are fine interpretations by any standard, and I recommend this disc as an attractive calling card from a pianist who deserves a hearing.

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The reason I decided to add the recording of the Violin Sonatas to this omnibus review is that in terms of interpretive success, this album from Bridge reminds me of Hj Lim’s: performances of the earlier sonatas are universally appealing, but the later sonatas, specifically the last two big works, aren’t quite in the same class. However, while Hj Lim is sometimes pretty wide of the mark in the later going, Govatos and Barone’s Violin Sonatas Nos. 9 and 10 are very respectable if not outstanding. The Ninth Sonata, Beethoven’s greatest, is replete with challenges, and the clearly seasoned team of Barbara Govatos and Marcantonio Barone are up to just about all of them. The grand architecture and noble musical sentiments of the first movement are firmly in place. But there’s a tendency to drive the piece a bit too much, resulting in hardness rather than toughness. A slight relaxing of the tension would have permitted a more musically satisfying interpretation, as far as I’m concerned. As it is, the performance is so uptight that repeated listening with any frequency is not indicated.

Beethoven’s Ninth Sonata was written with the Black English virtuoso George Polgreen Bridgetower’s talents in mind. Reportedly, a tiff over a girl in a tavern led Beethoven to scratch his initial dedication and instead inscribe the work to French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. On the evidence, Bridgetower must have been a pretty towering violinist—forgive the pun. But on the other hand, Beethoven’s final violin sonata—an altogether sunnier and less complicated work—reflects the talents of a very different set of performers: Beethoven’s noble piano pupil Archduke Rudolph Rainer and French violinist Pierre Rode, whose musical tastes were apparently not to Beethoven’s liking since he reported to the Archduke that a fiery finale à la the Kreutzer Sonata was out of the question for Rode. This hobbled Beethoven in completing his commission. Eventually, however, the composer accommodated by supplying a genial set of variations as a finale, meaning that the Tenth Sonata was always fated to get a lot less airtime than the mighty Ninth, though it’s a pretty wonderful work in its own right. Gavatos and Barone capture the flavor of this piece better than they do that of the Ninth, and this is an altogether finer performance, just let down a bit by some unlovely playing from violinist Barbara Gavatos in the first movement. Things improve markedly as the piece progresses.

As to the earlier sonatas, I see little to complain about and much to praise. As with the Piano Sonatas, the earliest violin sonatas (Op. 12 Nos. 1–3 of 1797–98) find Beethoven establishing himself as a musical Young Turk. They’re confident, bright often to the point of brashness. But then there’s a leap both in span of time and compositional maturity, and the next works, including the evergreen “Spring” Sonata, Op. 24, hint at emotional depths and aesthetic directions (including the embrace of early Romanticism) that are entirely new. So a performance team that approaches the complete Violin Sonatas has to capture, in fairly short space (just ten works), the aesthetic sea change that took place between 1797 and 1812—the year, after all, of Beethoven’s penultimate symphony. As I suggest, Gavatos and Barone are fully up to the task, charting the course between the Op. 12 and Op. 30 Sonatas with firm musical values and fine playing throughout. So while the competition is just too strong to give this set an unqualified recommendation, I can say that its insights are valuable to hear, and I find that it nicely complements the sets by Grumiaux-Habler (Philips) and Capuçon-Braley (Virgin) that I have on my shelves. As far as I can recall, the Bridge engineers have done well by the attractively intimate soundstage of Swarthmore College’s Lang Auditorium.

—Lee Passarella




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