Coming Out Parties

This month, two young pianists are making splashy debuts. One of them is no stranger to classical music fans, that’s Jeremy Denk, who already has a few self-produced CDs, including a great recording of the Ives Concord Sonata to his name, as well as a well-known blog and published articles in the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review. But he is now on Nonesuch, his major label debut. The other is HJ Lim who has, through the mysteries of the classical music business, been able to debut on another major label, EMI, in the most magnificent way possible, with a complete set of the Beethoven piano sonatas.

Even more audacious, the first sonata on the first disc is the Op. 106 “Hammerklavier,” which is a difficult work for even the most accomplished pianists. This is a clear statement of artistic intention and ambition. She handles it with enough ease to make some particular expressive choices, some which seem misguided and all pointing towards her fundamental view of the composer, which is as a proto-Lisztian Romantic. It’s an interesting and valid idea, but I don’t feel she makes a convincing case throughout the thirty-two sonatas. Beethoven straddled worlds, closing out the Classical era and single-handedly creating the Romantic one. That means there are integral elements of both concepts in the pieces, with Romantic personal expression supported by masterful Classical structures. That includes the Op. 106.

She tends toward overdoing changes in tempo. She’s not the first pianist to modulate tempo for expressive purposes without Beethoven calling for it, but where others, like Kempff and Nat do it judiciously, she does it pervasively. Her ritard on the last page of the first movement is already too much, and in the context it diminishes the improvisational feeling of her expressive playing in the “Adagio sostenuto,” which is something special. In her program notes, she focusses on Beethoven and the myth of Prometheus, seeing fire as a metaphor for knowledge and spirituality, and the composer as spreading what she considers a divine inspiration throughout his culture. This isn’t wrong, but it’s also not quite right, and too simplistic. Prometheus is a metaphor for the Enlightment, of which Beethoven was a child, and in that context knowledge is an antidote for received wisdom, including the spiritual kind in the hierarchal structure of Christianity. It also misses the point that what Prometheus gave mankind was a tool, and tools are used to build and make. Beethoven is the greatest builder of all the composers, piecing together incremental units into architectures that are massive, indestructible and still fluid in shape and quick in feel.

This has something to do with tempo, and rhythm, the latter elements being the thing that holds music together through time. Beethoven uses rhythm to build tension like a coiled spring, and the best way to convey that musically is by precision in tempo, which winds the spring subtly but powerfully. Push the tempo around too much, and the tension, and some of Beethoven himself, is lost. Rubinstein’s playing of the sonatas is an exact and fantastic demonstration of what a steady tempo does for the music, and Lim loses a lot in not being disciplined about tempo, one of Beethoven’s pieces of fire.

I am being critical because this is important music, and music that pianists use to prove themselves to audiences. Lim is no slouch, and this set is, although uneven, certainly not bad and often very impressive. Dipping into the pieces, I hear:

  • The ‘Waldstein’ is fine and her transition to the “Rondo Allegretto” is surprisingly understated, the rolling phrases carrying satisfying emotional weight.
  • The “Allegretto – Più mosso” movement of the Sonata in F Op. 54 is technically messy, although the tempo is not at some of the extremes she approches at other times. She has no shortage of chops, so perhaps this is a lack of preparation.
  • The ‘Pastorale’ sonata is well-balanced between relaxed lyricism and sturm und drang, one of the best things in the set.
  • In the ‘Les Adieux’ sonata, the mystery of the opening chords is lost in her rush to hit the “Allegro” mark, though the second movement is excellent. In the final movement, “Vivacissimamente” seems to have been written with her in mind.
  • The first sonata, Op. 2 No. 1, is a great early work, and Lim rushes through it perfunctorily
  • The ‘Appasionata’ is suitably dramatic and not at all overdone.
  • Her ‘Moonlight’ sonata is fast and surprisingly intense, a highlight of the set.

Except for the mixed ‘Hammerklavier,’ her playing of the last handful of sonatas is impressive and I would gladly listen to those tracks rather than pull Goode, Kempff, Lewis, Schnabel or Gulda off the shelves. Not that she replaces those recordings, but she’s a good complement and companion to them. After this start, I’m more than a little curious about what she will move on to next. I’d like to hear her play Liszt, which seems perfect for her hands, her heart and her mind.

A word about the recordings themselves; I was sent the “Mastered for iTunes” digital download, and I do not know what the point of the engineering is. The music was captured in Faller Hall, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, and the acoustic space around the piano has breadth and depth without too much reverb, but the final quality is bright to the point of giving the texture a weird brittleness inside a good sonic field. It’s highly engineered without much attention paid to how it sounds.

This set is currently available at the iTunes store for the promotional price of $9.99, which makes it self-recommending. This would be a value at three times that price or more, and if you’d like to add a complete Beethoven sonata cycle to your library, don’t hesitate, especially if this will be your first. If you know this music already, there is a lot of pleasure and satisfaction in the set. If you’d like a sample, you can download her recording of the Op. 109 Sonata in exchange for nothing more than your email address.
Jeremy Denk’s major label debut is a great CD. More compact than Lim’s, but covers more ground musically in pairing the first two books of Ligeti’s Etudes Pour Piano with Beethoven’s final sonata, in C minor Op. 111. Both are masterpieces of the piano literature, the earlier music pointing the way, technically and aesthetically, to Ligeti’s own great achievement, a set of pieces that pianists will be playing regularly 100 years from now.

The top layer feature of the Etudes is their technical challenges, especially the first one of the first book, “Désordre,” which makes one musician sound like three (and as I saw Ligeti demonstrate in a lecture-performance in the mid-1990’s, was crafted with genius level simplicity). The music also explores the deep resources the piano has for polyphony, poly-rhythms and harmonic textures, and Ligeti creates tremendous, and tremendously fascinating and exciting, complexity out of a proliferation of lines and also a spare sense of harmony that is both mysterious and highly advanced. From the perspective of sheer, cold craft, these are some of the most accomplished compositions in the history of Western classical music, on par with Stravinsky’s virtuoso language in his Violin Concerto. Like that work, the Etudes take stock of the enormous previous history and both synthesize it and point in new directions. Ligeti’s point in history means Bach, Beethoven, Lizst and also John Coltrane and African music via Steve Reich.

The mix of tradition and imagination means that beyond craft, this is some of the most physically and intellectually involving and exciting music there is, full of punchy rhythms, a beguiling way with building clouds of ambient sound, and a very Romantic feeling of personal expression that gropes its way towards the incomprehensible mysteries that lie both inside and beyond all of us. Denk tackles all this with a feeling of strength and rigor that I admire. He handles the pianistic demands with a measured sense of effort, you can hear how damn hard some of the music is to play without ever feeling that it’s beyond him, and even in the most extreme expressive ideas, like in “Vertige” and “En suspens” in Book II, he never lets the gauze cloud a clear view of the music.

Still, he brings out the Romantic quality in the music, more so than in the other fine recordings by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and Fredrik Ullén. He reinforced this at his CD release recital on May 21st at Le Poisson Rouge, where in between the closing etudes of Book I, “Arc-en-ciel” and “Automne à Varsovie,” he elided Lizst’s transcription of “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen Zagen” from the Bach cantata. It was a plangent exploration of how hundreds of years of the development of knowledge about abstract structures, rules of harmony and counterpoint, could be used as the foundation for searching and iconoclastic expression. And that’s what makes the Beethove sonata such an amazing juxtaposition with Ligeti.

Op. 111 is music that only a deaf composer could write. Denk spoke about pairing the “mania of Beethoven with the mania of Ligeti,” each sharing a fervent and not altogether sane needed to free themselves of the ideas that made their art possible. Where Ligeti assumes the listener’s familiarity with musical history, Beethoven uses the first movement of the sonata to review it, like a medley, a nutshell of keyboard music in eight and a half minutes. The second movement is entirely different, focussed on both the simplest musical ideas and the most complex emotional expression. The music breaks down to a series of repeated phrases and seemingly endless trills, monomaniacal in a way that never returned in music until the advent of the Minimalists. It’s as if, hearing only music in his head, Beethoven could concentrate on the smallest bits, the kind of material that in any other composer’s hand would be no more than decoration. He, though, had only an internal sense of time, or timelessness, and so that fragment could expand in the moment to become the thing itself. Imagine the sweet, bright sound of a trill in your head, indulge in the physical sensation in the mind’s ear, the two notes almost literally caressing the imagination. Now imagine that you cannot hear anything around you, except what’s in the mind’s ear, there is nothing to tear you away from that pleasure. What type of ecstasy is possible? In Beethoven’s case, the most exalted kind. What might be an aural prison becomes instead utter freedom, the freedom to say, this is beautiful and exalted to me, and I only need this, and I offer it to you.

While Lim plays this well, Denk plays it with the poise and dignity that Beethoven constantly demands, and that demands maturity. Beethoven was a great humanist, demanding by example that all people be afforded respect, and Denk channels that force. The take captured on the CD is great, one of the best, built on a sense of how each phrase leads inevitably to the next. His performance at Le Poisson Rouge was extraordinary, it absolutely silenced the staff and the crowd. There was the rapturous feeling of being in the hands of a great artist, of seeing through him to each measure and page of the score, watching the notes laid out and building, each upon each, knowing at every moment what would come next, and relishing each moment for how beautiful and satisfying that would be.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.