HJ Lim is a 24-year-old Korean pianist who grew up in France. She was just 13 when she became obsessed with Franz Liszt's Sonata in B Minor. Her teacher at the time told her she was too young to play the advanced work. "But I couldn't wait. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep," she recalls. "I was totally haunted by this Liszt sonata and I couldn't live without it. So I had a double life. In one life I played the repertoire that my teacher told me to play and in the other life, I was hiding and finding rooms to practice the Liszt sonata." She was determined that no one would prevent her from doing what she believed was right. She feels the same way about her debut release on EMI Classics, a complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas, which is available exclusively on iTunes.
Usually pianists who record the Beethoven sonatas cycle do so at the peak of their career. So why is HJ Lim doing this monumental feat at the very beginning of her career? "My answer to that is that I don't take life for granted," she says. "I think tomorrow is not guaranteed. Maybe I won't be here in ten years, who knows? Each Beethoven sonata is telling a story to us," she continues. "By encompassing the whole cycle we have this incredible chance to explore his whole life — so when you're playing the complete piano sonatas you're actually living Beethoven's life again!"
Her parents and three brothers all live in Korea. HJ Lim moved to France at age 12 to begin her intensive musical studies. It was two years ago when she first played all 32 of the Beethoven sonatas over a period of eight consecutive days in Paris. A year later she recorded them just as she had presented them in concert, by clustering them into eight common themes, each one telling a bit about Beethoven's life. "And that was a great, incredible experience because it was like the public was capable of exploring the life of this genius with me. It was fantastic because I could really communicate with my public."
HJ Lim groups Beethoven's first three sonatas under the theme, Assertion of an Inflexible Personality. "I realized that there are some sonatas that Beethoven himself grouped, like the first three sonatas. I was wondering, why did he group those sonatas?" she asks. "It's like those first three sonatas were representing a great symphony in three movements. He composed them when he was more or less my age. And what is incredible is, you already find this incredible Sturm and Drang element in those first three sonatas. The harmonies are so innovative."
There's also a very important nature element in Beethoven's life and that too is directly reflected in his music. HJ Lim explains, "For example, of course there is the Pastoral and the Waldstein, which is nicknamed Sunrise, but in a way I see these sonatas not in a romantic way of nature, but rather in the cosmic way of nature. It is a metaphor of the elevation of consciousness."
HJ Lim refers to Beethoven's 32 sonatas as her childhood friends. She's been studying this music for years, and that's what it takes to bring them to life. "I'm bringing all that I am in order to really make this music happen," she explains. "So that's really living with Beethoven. And I can tell you that those last years, I was so obsessed [by the composer] that I thought that I wouldn't even exist anymore without Beethoven."