Out on a Lim: the crazy abandon of a Korean maverick

Classical music: The problem with HJ Lim’s in-your-face style is that, when nothing is normal, you can get to the point where nothing is abnormal either

Korean pianist HJ Lim created quite a stir three years ago. She arrived on the recording scene in spectacular style in her mid-20s. EMI Classics took a gamble and issued a set of her playing the complete Beethoven sonatas. The set topped the Billboard classical chart and the iTunes classical chart in a number of countries.

The Dublin International Piano Festival brought her to Ireland for the first time last week, when she reinforced her image as a musical maverick. This was not just a matter of her playing. She chose to preface and intercut her programme of Prokofiev, Schubert, Scriabin and Rabinovitch- Barakovsky with the singing of a Korean monk, Seongdam Sunim.

There was singing between the first and second movements of the Prokofiev sonata, between the Prokofiev and the Schubert, between the first and second movements of the Schubert, and again at the sonata’s end.

And then there was the playing itself. The style is very visceral, in-your-face, at times almost breathless in its impetuosity. The rubato is almost as exaggerated as the forward pressure and sometimes throws the music off balance, like the excessive application of the brakes in a car. The overall effect was rather numbing. When nothing is normal, you can get to the point where nothing is abnormal either.


It's not totally unlike the kind of effect that someone such as Olli Mustonen can produce. Mustonen is a fascinating musician who was at one time a fairly regular visitor to Ireland. One of his NCH concerts, with violinist Joshua Bell, featured a change of programme because the two players simply couldn't agree on how to play one of the pieces in their advertised programme.

But Lim’s extremes go well beyond Mustonen’s bounds. She gives the impression that, musically speaking, punctuation and cadence are of little concern to her.

Beyond the playing, there was also the matter of her printed programme notes. “It is a concert programme,” she writes, “where from the beginning to the end, I explore multiple psychological states through music, progressing from hell to light, with a specific spiritual guideline represented by the venerable Seongdam Sunim.”

Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata as hell? Well, if you play it with Lim’s crazy abandon, maybe. After the Schubert I’d had my fill. I’ll catch up with her Scriabin another day.

Bill Whelan’s songs and sideswipes

On Wednesday the festival presented a lunchtime seminar by Riverdance composer Bill Whelan with the provocative title Music Composition and Improvisation: Who Has the Right and Does it Matter?

What Whelan set out to do was to offer some thoughts on issues surrounding copyright at a time when digital media and the internet have redrawn the speed of dissemination of music, books and films, whether or not that dissemination has the approval of the creator or rights holder.

Whelan anchored his presentation through quotations from the recently published autobiography of Philip Glass (whose father owned a record store in which the young Glass spent some time working) and some personal background about how he raised the £10,000 necessary to get Riverdance on disc in advance of its broadcast during the 1995 Eurovision finals.

Needless to say, the music world in its wisdom turned him down. He raised the money from an insurance company for which he had written some commercial music.

Along the way he offered sideswipes at the giants of the digital world and gave a potted history of the data-compression techniques behind the MP3 format. It’s always salutary to be reminded that when a CD recording is converted to MP3, the bulk of the data on the CD is thrown away. The rules about what can be thrown away were partly figured out through psychoacoustic research about what kinds of effects people do and don’t notice when parts of the original are removed.

At the heart of Whelan’s presentation was his interest in what he called “the custom and practice that has been observed when a performer improvises and also where a performer plays a non-copyright work or a public domain work – say a piece by Mozart or a traditional Irish tune”.

He delved into the history of how arrangements of public domain works were treated when royalties came to be distributed – he served on a committee which advised on this in the 1970s – and reminded his listeners that today, once a traditional musician registers his or her performance of any particular tune with the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO), he or she is eligible to collect royalties on it. Obviously, players collect royalties on their own performances, not on anyone else's.

But Whelan went beyond the current practice in the world of traditional music to wonder if classical musicians could “open up a potential source of income that has been perhaps untapped for years”.

His suggestion is so novel it took me quite a while to get my head around it. The idea is that, just as a traditional musician can collect an arranger’s royalty for the performance of a well-known traditional tune, couldn’t a classical musician register a similar right to, say Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and claim a royalty whenever they perform it?

If, say, Finghin Collins, John O'Conor, Hugh Tinney and Barry Douglas were all to do this, they could each claim out of the royalty pot every time they played a particular piece they've registered. Venues, from the National Concert Hall to a pub in the back of beyond, are legally obliged to register with the IMRO and pass on a percentage of their takings from musical performances. It's these payments that the players would be making a claim on.

Whelan instanced a New York musician who has registered his performances of Shostakovich in the Netherlands. By registering and collecting the royalties there, he will, like U2, benefit from that country’s favourable tax treatment of royalties. It sounds to me like there may be a new gravy train out there just waiting for the passengers to climb aboard.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com