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Ionarts-at-Large: HJ Lim, Ken Masur, and Hints of Scriabin

HJ Lim is best known for a marketing blast by EMI, eager to promote the young Korean pianist’s recording of the (almost*) complete Beethoven sonatas which was given away for a tenner on iTunes: An audacious undertaking, accompanied by cringe-worthy high-falutin’ ‘chapter-titles’ into which Lim divided the sonatas. The accompanying essays fluctuate between astute observation and reinforcing the very stereotype meant to fight: That of a self-assured young mind (itself no crime) engaged in pouty pseudo-intellectualism and self-justification: why should a twenty-something pianist not go toe-to-toe with Backhaus, Kempf, Gilels, Arrau, and the 70-some other pianists that have tackled the Beethoven sonatas.

I passed on the effort; a few cursory dips into the late sonatas on Spotify seemed to justify the focus on other Beethoven cycles projects, recent and ongoing. But as a marketing tool it was a success, still, and when HJ Lim came through town, playing with the Munich Symphony Orchestra—the number six orchestra in town—I was sufficiently intrigued to check it all out.

For a little pre-concert concert that the MSO occasionally programs, HJ Lim had picked the concert-unrelated topic of Alexander Scriabin. After an earnest, labored spoken introduction by an orchestra official, Miss Lim came on stage and performed the brief Étude Pathétique op.8/12, one of the most readily charming picks for an audience of—presumably—Scriabin neophytes, perfectly suited to have them appreciate the eccentric but entrancing composer. A most sympatico choice of HJ Lim’s, because it wasn’t primarily self-serving, it was music-serving… and a agreeable performance, too.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, 30 Piano Sonatas,
HJ Lim

available at Amazon
M.Ravel, Piano Concertos,
C.Zimmerman / P.Boulez / Cleveland Orchestra

The Munich Symphony Orchestra (last reviewed here), not to be mistaken for the Munich Philharmonic or Munich Radio Orchestra, much less the BRSO, Bavarian State Orchestra, or Munich Chamber Orchestra, is still a very decent band, or at least has shown itself to be on the now four occasions I have heard them in the last dozen years. It’s easy to overlook amid the many high-profile orchestral offerings in Munich, but they certainly have their audience and the 1600-seat Prinzregententheater was full on this 22nd of November.

The concert conducted by Ken Masur, steadily holding up the family tradition now that his father’s conduct has become too shaky, had a French-American theme: Jacques Ibert’s Louisville Concerto, Ravel’s Piano Concerto, Gershwin’s An American in Paris, and Bernstein’s On the Town.

In this lineup of show-master tune-mongers, it was the Ibert concerto that stood out for the ingratiating firecracker concerto for orchestra that it is. It’s very much a European-American concoction, the musical anticipation of Euro Disney, 40 years before the fact. The Munich Symphony Orchestra managed a terrific performance of this gratifying, grateful work, flawless except for the exposed slow passages. This successful curtain raiser set the stage for HJ Lim in the Ravel concerto. Woodwinds might have been on the edge, the horns stressed, but Masur Jr. held the bunch together to ably accompany Miss Lim. Despite appearances, hers was not at all a wafting, romanticized interpretation but instead a muscular one, fairly tight (not taut), an unfussy affair aided by a round tone, with odd but persuasive accents in the trills, a slow second, and a spunky third movement performed at demon speed. I’ve heard considerably lesser performances from considerably more famous pianists. She capped the performance with a Korean folk song transcription of her own devising.

The grooves and bends of Gershwin’s “American” didn’t come very naturally to the orchestra: “Auf mein Kommando: Eins, Zwei, Swing. Jawohl!” Consequently it came out more like something titled “An Englishman in Detmold”, or at best “A Quebecoise in West Bromwich”. After the robo-swing, a few players looked ready for an oil change. The same, roughly, remained true for the Bernstein, except a few players had now loosened their limbs and warmed up to the idiom. Not so, judging by the looks, Ken Masur. In his attempts to casually shimmy along, he looked like the only straight guy at a gay dance party. Still, the crowd went nuts and was—arguably—rewarded with a Bernstein West Side Story dance as an encore that featured the orchestra, especially the string section, at its most modest. SIGNATURE JFL

* She dropped the two op.49 Nos. 1 & 2 ‘sonatinas’, “published against the composer’s wishes”, making it a cycle of 30 sonatas, rather than the traditional 32. Every bit as legitimate a point as would be the completist’s inclusion of the three Kurfursten Sonatas WoO 47.