Recently I was very impressed by George Li playing a Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto via a live webcast from Detroit, hence tracking down this Live at the Mariinsky release, which offers very little sign of an audience, but that is mostly an advantage, and there was of course a choice of takes from two recitals and also, one assumes, from punter-free preparation.
The three-movement Haydn Sonata, with a Minuet placed second where you might expect a slow movement, is played crisply, with tempos, louds and softs well-judged; the pianist’s affection for the music, in all its divergences, is palpable, although second-half repeats in the outer movements would have been welcome. The Chopin is relatively disappointing though; plenty of firepower, lyricism and big gestures but the exposition (repeated from the double bar rather than returning to the Grave introduction as some pianists now do) is divided into two – wildly fast and generously slow (there needs to be greater correlation between these subjects) although there is plenty of excitement presented in close-up sound albeit on a piano that wants for body at times and in a fairly resonant acoustic that renders the instrument a little nebulous, and the Scherzo and Trio is similarly unrelated, although there is no doubting Li’s panache and unaffected phrasing. The ‘Funeral March’ is rather square (ditto the poetic middle section) and brightly lit, not the solemn introspective occasion it can be, although the reprise finds the bass line suggesting ominous tolling bells, yet the enigmatic spectral Finale (all ninety seconds of it), whatever Li’s agility, needs to be more-veiled than this and, also to its advantage, should follow attacca and without the intervening thump that surely could have been edited out.
There follows a magnificent account of Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations, a late flowering in this composer’s catalogue. Li is really inside this masterpiece, his superb technique and focussed musicianship serving a probing interpretation of these ingenious commentaries, here alive with nervous energy, volatile contrasts and soulful romancing, Variation XIV being a perfect example of beauteous expanse, played with depth of feeling. The Liszt pair are scarcely less fine, the D-flat Consolation a rapt foil to the conclusion of the Rachmaninov, and then it’s hair-letting-down time in the most-famous Hungarian Rhapsody, which Tom & Jerry cartoon to in "The Cat Concerto", Li opening up vistas of rolling countryside and indigenous instruments, the second half being of scintillating pianism, arguably too much so, as if Horowitz had a hand or three in the fireworks, but I was thinking of Cziffra. One has to imagine the St Petersburg audience erupting.