03/30/2015 06:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pianist HJ Lim: At Last, a Presence!

Before talking about music, let's make a detour via literature. Far from his controversial scenario, which has caused so much ink to flow, it is the definition of what a writer is that I remember from Soumission, Michel Houellebecq's latest political thriller:

[...] in the end, whether he writes very well or very poorly is of little importance. The essential thing is that he write and that he actually be present in his books (it's strange that so simple a condition, in appearance so barely discriminating, in reality be so to such a degree [...]: because, in principle, human beings possess, for lack of quality, the same quantity of being; they are all, in principle, also approximately present. However, that is not the impression they give [...]).

Whether having studied at the Paris Conservatoire, Juilliard in New York, the Royal College in London or the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow before embarking on an international career, today's young pianists strike us by two characteristics:

- an astonishing professionalism (excellent fingering technique, rich sound, attack without hardness, as well as musical reflection, total mastery of a work's structure, its harmonic semantics and its contrapuntal progression);

- an appalling absence (all the more lethal when they play with sensitivity, taste and sincerity), such as Houellebecq describes it: "and too often, as you turn the pages that you sense were dictated by the spirit of the time more than by a peculiar individuality, you see an uncertain being unravel, increasingly ghostly and anonymous."

Had I but a single word to describe the young Korean pianist Hyun-Jung Lim, it would be 'presence'. Horowitz and Argerich are the first names that come to mind when one thinks of artists adulated (or detested -- we tend to forget that as the years go by...) from their beginnings for their singular way of inhabiting space, their ease in being there, fully. An obviousness that makes all descriptions and knowledgeable analyses pointless, not to mention pedantic.


How, in fact, can we not think of those two magicians when seeing how much the very keys of the piano approve of HJ Lim in these two Scarlatti sonatas; turning water into wine could, after all, be comparable to a technical process, playing the repeated notes of K. 141 like that is downright miraculous, and HJ Lim alone is capable of it (video beginning at 1'44):

You're starting to be curious? You surely know the first two preludes and fugues of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier. Are you certain? Here:

You didn't recognize them you say? The first prelude is too fast for your taste, the tempo changes surprise you, but you tell yourself that nonetheless you are before an exceptional talent, 'instinctive playing'... like a 'natural phenomenon.' Except that a natural phenomenon is without thought -- the total opposite of this young pianist. Far from counting solely on her intuition and aptitudes, albeit extraordinary, HJ Lim studies the period, the musical and historical contexts, the original tempi (defining them is not always easy) before undertaking an entire cycle. Because, unlike Horowitz or Argerich, it is in the entity of the great musical cycles that she succeeds in finding coherence and the sense of the units that make them up: at an age when even the most promising of her peers are 'building a repertoire', she gives only complete cycles in concert: the Beethoven sonatas (that she recorded for EMI at the tender age of twenty-five), Bach's preludes and fugues, Chopin's preludes, scherzos, ballades, waltzes and etudes, those of Rachmaninov...

A unique talent needs an unusual interlocutor: it was with the great Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky (brilliant conductor, composer and pianist, a veritable Renaissance man) that HJ Lim learnt to never lie to or betray herself, to believe in her singularity and protect it with, as the sole research tool, the intentions of each composer, once the sacrosanct dust removed.

But what moves me most in her itinerary is the way she talked to me about her former professor at the Conservatoire, Henri Barda. My God! Such intelligence, such talent, such ethics that this gentleman demonstrated without even trying to format the insolent force that his young pupil must have been. Rather than that, from the outset he treated her as a peer and managed to protect her, discreetly, so that she might breathe at her so-singular rhythm and make sure that she be able to build her unique destiny.

So it is in tribute to the ethics of Henri Barda, exceptional teacher and pianist, that we have kept the most insolent for the end; just for the pleasure of exasperating those of his colleagues whose self-proclaimed profundity hates (but what admirable coherence!) the gratuitous show: let us observe what ten fingers (the same ones that we use to sadly sweat blood amidst our certitudes) can do when a keyboard adores them: