RAVEL: Valses nobles et sentimentales; Sonatine; La Valse; SCRIABIN: Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30; Piano Sonata No. 5 Op. 53; Waltz in A-flat, Op. 38; 2 Poems, Op. 32 – Warner Classics 9 14509 2, 63:22 (2/11/14) ****:

We do not often consider Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) in the same light as contemporary Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), but as the Nineteenth Century waned, each composer added his own color and arsenal of keyboard effects to extend the canon of music. HJ Lim, the twenty-five-year-old virtuoso, alternates scores (rec. 1-4 April 2012) by the Russian and French masters, and the juxtaposition proves illuminating, although each master’s concept of sonority takes a distinct path. Both composers exploring their personal versions of “the dance,” more or less in the spirit of Chopin and Schubert.

Lim opens with the 1911 set of Valses nobles et sentimentales of Ravel, ironic gestures in a Schubert vein cross-fertilized by Vienna. Lim makes them cascade and flutter intelligently – and occasionally willfully – and in a unified manner, the momentum’s rarely projecting a sense of relaxation, either because of the advanced harmonies or the tension Lim exerts on the various lines. Lim’s own sonority traverses a wide spectrum of effects, from chaste and subdued, to fleetly acrobatic. That Lim possesses charisma, personal and artistic, needs no debate. The last of the waltzes, Epilogue: Lent, carries hints of former waltzes, but it also harbors a rarified subjectivity, at once detached and airily voluptuous.

The Scriabin contribution begins with the 1903 Fourth Sonata in two movements, Andante and Prestissimo volando.  It has been suggested that a competent Scriabin interpreter should command four qualities: feverish intensity; a manic vision; a broad dynamic range; and a total mastery of pedal effects. Scriabin attached a poetic program that likens him to a supernatural figure enticed by a distant star that shall engulf him or that he shall engulf by the sheer erotic solipsism of his ego. The “flight” motif assumes both masculine and feminine forms, perhaps an analogy to Schumann’s bifurcated consciousness. Seventh chords abound, chains of fourths, richly accented chromatics, all accompanied by frenzied tremolandos that Lim makes dance in an ecstatic vision that pushes, pulls, hesitates, and then surges to its own happy annihilation.

Even more demonic – or Lisztian – the Fifth Sonata of 1907 compresses any number of contrary impulses into a single movement. The urge to atonality proves strong, from the opening impetuoso motif that will likewise close this punishing work. The composer deliberately sets out to imitate on the keyboard his Poem of Ecstasy, to build an orgiastic, prismatic conception that would “summon to life secret yearnings.” Lim certainly wants to express the vehemence of the occasion, especially as the music dispenses with the tonic chord as a source of identity, and rather embraces the dominant ninth chord (the fifth degree flattened) as a spiritual center. The addition of whole-tone sequences makes the music dense as well as restless, since a whole-tone scale avoids a sense of resolution. Scriabin claimed that “melody is harmony unfurled,” and this frenetic piece attempts to find “fearful symmetry” in its permutations of Scriabin’s “mystic chord.” Lim has taken the “extravagant” directive of Scriabin and tested its limits. The result is an intelligent dementia that auditors will find appealing or literally “mystifying.”

The 1903 Ravel Sonatine originally meant to fulfill a competition requirement, but its first movement proved too long. The plastic first movement – in the Aeolian mode of F-sharp Minor – combines a chaste neo-Classicism with Debussy harmony and Liszt figuration. Lim pays attention to Ravel’s demand for accented upbeats, and the motion of the Modere enjoys a liquid, restless urgency. More eccentric is Lim’s treatment of the D-flat Menuet, which she accents and slows down in an over-refined mannerism, erotic but too dainty. Liszt again sets the model for the virtuosic Anime, a toccata that often imitates Debussy’s Mouvement from the first book of Images. Perfect fourths reign, as does the theme of the first movement, converted into 5/4. Beautifully accented and brilliantly played, the piece serves Lim well as a bravura vehicle for a willful practitioner.

Another Scriabin group follows, works from his fruitful year 1903: the A-flat Waltz and the Two Poems. The Waltz bears an unusual ease and affability, even marked affabile. Lim projects its graceful poise, its salon charm and colorful sophistication that still permit bravura flourishes. The first of the Poems, written in the favored key of F-sharp Major, presents a fluent, flirtatious sensuality. A D Major call to arms opens the second Poem, moving with turbulence until it exhausts itself and so ends quietly. The actively throbbing left hand reminds us of the passion contained in the D-sharp Minor Etude.

For her grand finale, Lim performs Ravel’s 1920 ode to a collapsed fin-de-siecle of the sprit, La Valse. For sheer erotic power, a siren’s song, this Lim version has few rivals. The music intends to become an “apotheosis of the Viennese waltz mingled. . . with the idea of destiny’s fantastic whirl,” states the composer. The dance-form itself seems to have been born, mature, and self-destruct at the conclusion, the explosion of traditional forms a typical Ravel gambit. Curiously, the final bar evades waltz time in order to demolish the ethos of Romanticism. The nervous propulsion and uncanny phantasmagoria of the whirlwind piece has a truly enamored exponent in Lim, who sweeps and pounds the figures into our ravished imaginations.

—Gary Lemco