A must for piano collectors.
With no information about DongHyek Lim in the booklet for this release, I was obliged to do a quick online search to find out that he would have been a youthful 23 years of age when this recording was made. Lim made headlines by refusing to accept 3
prize at the 2003 Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels. He has also been winner and highly placed at numerous other competitions, and now has a glittering concert and recording career. At 21, he was the youngest pianist ever to sign a recording contract with EMI Classics. After a
Presents’ CD and a recording which includes the Chopin Sonata in B minor, this is his third album for EMI.
To sum up, I would say that this is indeed very much a ‘young person’s’
Goldberg Variations. I don’t mean this in a negative way, or to imply that Lim’s playing is immature or lacking in some essential aspects. When you hear the gentler variations, such as
Variation 13, or
15, you can hear a kind of slinky expression, lithe and flexible, which teases some gorgeous shapes from the music that you probably won’t have heard in quite this way before. It is with the livelier variations that the full athletic pianism of DongHyek Lim is unleashed. Such variations as
12, 14 and so on will blow your socks off, but in the nicest way. Lim’s touch is powerful, but his sound doesn’t dig you in the ribs aggressively like some pianists. What I like about his phrasing and emphases is that there is always somewhere from which they grow, and a direction in which they move. Rather than appearing as clunky, isolated accents, Lim’s actions are almost invariably shaped with elegant structure and form, even when all technical hell is breaking loose. He will choose slower than usual tempi on occasion, such as
Variation 19, which brings out the inner voices with great expression and panache. Such variations
use the sustaining power of the concert grand piano to full advantage. One of the few to be truly extended is the wonderful
Variation 25, which at 5:39 is the longest of the entire set, and very beautiful it is too. Several variations drive on with more urgency than is often encountered,
Variation 27 and numerous others coming in at under a minute. These never lose a sense of absolute control however, and the only regret with some is the lack of a repeat – that sense of Bach’s proportions being lost in a miniature which the mind has too little time to take in properly. Clarity of voicing is another strong aspect of Lim’s playing, something you can convince yourself of just by playing the brief magic of
Variation 24, whose crossing lines are as complex as the rails at Crewe junction, and just as accurately placed.
Goldberg Variations come in at under 50 minutes, which is a relatively brief traversal of this great masterpiece. The reason for this is not massive haste, but non-observation of repeats.
Sergey Schepkin takes just under 72 minutes in his recording, which in almost complete opposition to Lim uses all the repeats. Neither interpretation is given to Gould-like extremes of tempo, and both are very approachable. With a well-known piece such as this, one would imagine that relating a new recording to at least one other would be fairly straightforward, but each time I brought out the old favourites I found it harder to quantify Lim in terms of alliances. His softer movements sometimes have a little of that feel from the older Decca recording by Andras Schiff, and, like Glenn Gould, you do hear some distant vocalisations in the background of some of these variations. I took to thinking there might be some youthful connection with the younger Claudio Arrau, whose 1941 recording has been made available on RCA, but that didn’t work at all. Something of Sergey Schepkin’s fire and attack can be found with Lim, but without that difficult to define but clearly more hard-edged Russianness. Lim is more feminine, his fireworks more sparkling and transparent, and less block-like in comparison. In other words, if you have the idea of this being ‘oh no, not another
Goldberg Variations’ then you need to think again. Arriving at the lyrical melodic forms of the penultimate
Quodlibet the sense of integration is made complete. If anything this is more so than with the final
Aria which stands apart a little from the rest; seeming more like a coda than a resolution.
I for one have been highly impressed by Lim’s richness of invention and individual approach, somehow achieved without being in any way unnecessarily quirky or eccentric.
As a ‘filler’ DongHyek Lim gives us the
Chaconne from the violin Partita in D minor BWV 1004, as famously arranged for the piano by Ferruccio Busoni. Quite correctly, Lim does not play this as Bach, but gives us the full romantic works. Building sonorities with triumphantly splendid grandeur, this is not only a technical marvel, but an overwhelming musical experience which makes one glad to be alive. Lim never sounds anything like the proverbial ‘bull in a china shop’ which can be the result with some players, but the contrast between this and the
Goldberg Variations could hardly be greater. Some of the effects Lim creates in this music are quite magical, and you realise how sensitive his pedalling is as well as having all that touch at the keyboard. I can’t say I’ve been a great collector of versions of this piece, but the one I’ve hung onto longest is Shura Cherkassky’s live 80
th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall in 1991. Comparing these two is like looking through two different ends of a telescope, but what I appreciate in both is a highly personal approach to colour, sonority and shape. Cherkassky is almost wilfully individualistic, and I would never hold this particular performance up as in any way definitive, but at a little over 16 minutes both young and old masters agree that it’s better to let the music flow and move on rather than to linger over so many precious moments. Coming back to the telescope analogy, Lim has a way of magnifying the music into something truly towering and monumental, without losing the sense of delicacy and contrast which is essential for keeping the whole thing together.
EMI’s sound for this disc is excellent in my opinion. The piano seems almost too distant to start with, but the sheer width of dynamic in Lim’s playing make the microphone placement and balancing nothing less than entirely logical. The power in the Bach/Busoni is conveyed with a magnificent sense of scale and impact, and with a delicious warmth in the bass which is thankfully not over-emphasised. The delicate touch and intimacy in this, and those gentler variations of BWV988 draw you in and leave you wanting more. If I encounter no more piano CDs on my desert island this year, I’ll be happy with just this one.
Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International