HJ Lim’s latest album, released this past September on Warner Classics (now the “home” of artists previously recording on EMI Classics), provides a fascinating, if not provocative, exercise in juxtaposition. The beginning and ending are provided by Maurice Ravel’s two major “waltz studies,” starting with the Valses nobles et sentimentales (noble and sentimental waltzes) collection, composed in 1911, and concluding with the solo piano version of “La valse,” commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes in 1920. The middle is then occupied by the much earlier sonatina, which Ravel completed in 1905, when he was just beginning to establish his career.
The “program” for this album then sandwiches two different genres of compositions by Alexander Scriabin between these three “pillars.” His two sonatas composed during the first decade of the twentieth century, Opus 30 in F-sharp major (the fourth, composed in 1903) and Opus 53 (the fifth, composed in 1907), are situated between beginning and middle. Between middle and end are three short pieces all composed also in 1903: the Opus 38 waltz in A-flat major and the two Opus 32 poems.
Given the scrupulous attention that Lim gave to how she grouped the sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven on her “complete” recording, one assumes that there was a logic to this arrangement. However, while Lim wrote her own booklet notes for her Beethoven recordings, those for this new album were provided by Roger Nichols; and they offer little insight beyond the fact that the Scriabin compositions fit within Ravel’s broader time frame. Thus, those of us seeking an overall logic to the program will have to find it in the performances themselves and other external sources about the compositions themselves.
In that respect each composer is represented by one work lengthier than the others. For Scriabin it is the Opus 53 sonata, which may be said to conclude the “first part” of the program. (If this were a recital, the audience would definitely need an intermission after its performance.) For Ravel it is the concluding performance of “La valse.” Both of these are major challenges for a solo pianist; and it is, without a doubt, impressive that Lim should take on both of them in the single “program” of this recording.
Indeed, Sviatoslav Richter declared Opus 53 to be the most difficult piece he ever encountered, placing it on the same level as the first of the pieces Franz Liszt called “Mephisto Waltz.” Indeed, for those who dare to follow the music while listening to a performance, Scriabin’s notes challenge the eye far more than Liszt’s ever did. In the Liszt composition that Richter cited, both eye and ear quickly apprehend the “Satanic” distortion of the “waltz concept;” and one is easily drawn into the power of the music to connote a narrative without explicitly declaring one.
Opus 53 has its own literary foundation, but it is much different. Without diminishing its standing, it may best be described as an “afterthought” for the Opus 54 symphonic poem “Le Poème de l’Extase” (the poem of ecstasy), a single-movement orchestral composition that practically (many would dispense with that adverb) wallows in erotic emotionalism. Scriabin had written a long poem with the same title, meant to accompany the music but not to be recited with it. Four lines from the poem appear at the beginning of the published score of the Opus 53 sonata:
I summon you to life, secret yearnings!
You who have been drowned in the dark depths
Of the creative spirit, you timorous
Embryos of life, it is to you that I bring daring.
(The translation is from the Dover reprint of the music.) The Wikipedia page for the sonata includes an impressive analysis demonstrating that its single movement is, indeed, in sonata form, even if the overall structure is slightly unbalanced. One may thus say that Opus 53 is structurally more disciplined than Opus 54; and, while it is less likely to be accused of wallowing, it certainly has a tendency to lurch across its many changes in tempo.
Unfortunately, that lurching is the main quality that comes through in Lim’s performance. One cannot help but be impressed that she manages to get all of those notes under her fingers. Nevertheless, the music comes off more as Scriabin’s personal monument to self-indulgence, rather than as a sonata. Indeed, I have to wonder if Richter himself was worried less about the problem of accounting for the notes and more about making Opus 53 register with the listener as a sonata when he made his declaration of its difficulty. There is definitely more to this music than its outpouring of notes or its erratic approach to tempo; but Scriabin has not made it easy for the pianist to find or to communicate the essence of that “more.” This result is an experience that leaves the listener awe-struck but not necessarily drawn into the music itself.
“La valse” is an equally challenging undertaking for the pianist, but for different reasons. Unfortunately, in this case Nichols’ notes move from an insufficient account of Scriabin to an inaccurate one of Ravel. It is true that Ravel had a fascination for the waltz form, particularly to what it had become through the work of Johann Strauss II in late nineteenth-century Vienna. That fascination was first expressed in “Valses nobles et sentimentales;” and “La valse may accurately be described as a continuation of that earlier composition.
Nevertheless, as I observed above, “La valse” has a history of its own that begins with Diaghilev’s commission. As music for a ballet, Ravel conceived the piece as an orchestral composition; and it was presented to Diaghilev in a two-piano reduction that Ravel himself performed with Marcelle Meyer. Diaghilev’s reaction was mixed. He called the music a “masterpiece” but “not a ballet,” calling it instead “a portrait of ballet.” As a result, the music achieved, instead, its current status as a major work in the symphonic repertoire. Following up on that success, Ravel prepared a solo piano transcription, which is given a rather informative account by Yuja Wang in the booklet for her recording of that version.
(Meanwhile, Diaghilev was shown to be wrong by two of the greatest choreographers of the twentieth century. George Balanchine created “La valse,” which used both “Valses nobles et sentimentales” and “La valse” for its score, in 1951 for his New York City Ballet. Then, in 1958, Frederic Ashton choreographed “La valse” for the Royal Ballet. I, personally, have only seen the Balanchine version; and I find it an extraordinary, and rather frightening, piece of work.)
Much has been argued over whether or not Ravel’s score amounted to a psychotic reflection on the devastation of the First World War. Ravel denied this connotation on every possible occasion. Nevertheless, it is difficult to accept this music as the abstraction he claims he wanted it to be. Like Liszt’s connotations of Mephisto, the music warps the usual rhetoric of a Viennese waltz, suggesting only in fragments that disappear as soon as they register in the mind of the listener.
Unlike Liszt, however, Ravel never let go of the rhythmic essence of the Viennese waltz. While he would engage embellishments that would venture some distance from the three-beat rhythm, he never let go of the underlying metre. Indeed, it is through an almost ostinato presence of that rhythm (a technique he would apply eight years later in “Boléro”) that one is led to recognize evidence of a warped mindset (notwithstanding Ravel’s own opinions).
Unfortunately, Lim never seems to really “get” the way in which that rhythm becomes the spinal cord of the entire composition. The result is a performance in which the embellishments overwhelm the “background structure” (to invoke the terminology of Heinrich Schenker) that is being embellished. This is also the case in her interpretation of “Valses nobles et sentimentales,” where it is all the more evident, since the music amounts to seven different “impressions of waltz form,” all wrapped together in a concluding epilogue movement. Furthermore, it is unclear that Ravel’s title registered with Lim, since there is no sense of the interplay between “noble” and “sentimental” rhetorical styles.
Lim’s account of the sonatina falls short on similar rhetorical grounds. In this case the music is a view of the eighteenth-century (specifically Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) as seen from the twentieth. This makes it a logical predecessor to the suite Le tombeau de Couperin (Couperin’s tomb), which engages a similar view of the seventeenth century of François Couperin. Lim never seems to muster the right touch to encourage the listener to recognize and share Ravel’s point of view.
Touch is also problematic in the remaining short Scriabin selections, the two short movements of the Opus 30 sonata and the short stand-alone pieces in Opus 38 and Opus 32. Each of these is approached with a well-cultivated sense of technique, the same dexterity that carries her through the most treacherous demands in Opus 53 and the complexities of reducing an entire orchestra to the two-hand version of “La valse.” The problem is that neither Scriabin nor Ravel is a composer for whom the listening experience is sustained only by technical skill. Rhetoric is paramount; and, on this new recording, its absence is almost impossible to ignore.