HJ Lim

The Korean pianist on Beethoven

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For her deubt recording pianist HJ Lim has jumped straight in with a complete set of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. And, what’s more, she’s divided the works into her own themes including ‘Nature’, ‘Heroic Ideals’ and ‘Eternal Feminine’. Here, she explains how she went about putting the recording together and why Beethoven is an integral part of her life.

HJ LimWhy did you decide to divide the Sonatas into themes?
When I started to deepen my knowledge of Beethoven, I started to understand that there is a very close connection between his music and his life. Beethoven Sonatas are not just No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and so on: each is telling us a story. Each sonata is a direct reflection of an aspect of Beethoven’s life. Take Nature. This is a very important aspect in Beethoven’s music, there’s the Pastoral Sonata, which is just a very Romantic way of considering nature. And you have the Waldstein with the incredible repetition of the chords at the beginning which for me expresses the vibration of the universe. When I come to play the complete cycle it’s very important for me that I communicate a real message – it’s not only playing from No. 1 to 32.

Why did you use the theme ‘Eternal Feminine’ for some of the sonatas?
This theme came from Goethe’s Faust. The last sentence of the work talks about how the Eternal Feminine attracts us to [something] higher. With Beethoven that doesn’t just mean woman, it’s the most ideal, the most spiritual life – a sort of universal ‘yin’. In the concept of ‘eternal feminine’ you have the most idealised and spiritualised feminine aspect that’s inside every human being. The great genius of Beethoven is that, even though he was incredibly man, he really could describe this infinite tenderness in his music.

How long have you been working on these Sonatas?
You may as well ask me ‘When did you start eating spinach?’. I don’t remember because Beethoven was really the first composer I played, when I was four or five. So when I decided to embark on this project I didn’t feel that I was playing new pieces at all. It was rather a question of putting the music in my fingers. I analysed and studied, I read every biography and all the letters I could find – around 3,000 pages. What is incredible is that I feel that I know Beethoven more than I know myself because I’ve never analysed myself as much as I have Beethoven. I didn’t feel like I was preparing a concert because my life has always been dedicated to these sonatas.

Were you nervous to be recording such famous works – works that have been recorded so many times before?
Absolutely. But I think when a composer gives birth to a work, once it’s published, it doesn’t belong to the composer any more. The work has its own life, it’s like a human being who’s eternal, infinite, it can cross so many centuries. So of course we have to renew the interpretations. Picasso put it beautifully. He said if there was just one truth it wouldn’t be possible to paint a tree in so many different ways. And I think that’s absolutely right.

We're giving away two copies of HJ Lim's recording of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. Click here to find out how to enter.

HJ Lim performs Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata and works by Rachmaninov at Wigmore Hall on 20 July.