Yundi won the Warsaw International Chopin Piano Competition in 2000, and he was one of the jurors at last year's contest. Given his association with the composer, and the impressive breadth of his albums, this low-key, undercharged, Royal Festival Hall recital was a disappointment. Yes, it had elegance, and moments of risk-taking pianissimo. Yes, his quiet, courteous stage deportment was to be admired. But, for an artist with this music surely so ingrained in mind and muscle-memory, he had to work surprisingly hard at times, and the trickier corners of the music ruffled him, needing professional get-out clauses to restore the status quo.
His sectionalised, dynamically constrained view of the Ballades was the let-down, not helped by a thinly nourished Steinway of impoverished character. The structural drama, big horizons, physically commanding piano presence, and narrative rhetoric and fantasy of his recent DG recording were nowhere to be heard. We got instead routine playing going through the motions, prone to split octaves and loose chording, and seemingly without much passion or involvement.
Lukewarm, the audience let him go without so-much as a second call. But not before ruining the end of the F-minor Ballade, breaking into applause in the (dominant-prepared) pause before the coda. Of course, there were highlights, most obviously Yundi's trademark legato lining. He made a point to remind us that the start of the G-minor Ballade is marked only forte (the final G, though, is fff, which he perversely reined in, rather like the preceding double-octave descent). He found a sweet-toned Schumannesque innocence in the F-major (if at the expense of its A-minor storms). He produced a beautiful smoky setting for the G-flat material of Opus 52. And he voiced the tenor ghosts of the rocking second theme of the A-flat Ballade more vibrantly than in his studio version. Overall, though, proceedings were small-scale and muted, emotionally short on the epic and needing bolder delivery.
The intimacy and concentrated span of the Opus 28 Preludes fared better. But playing them more or less as an unbroken cycle, irrespective of keys, pivotal links or tempo changes, didn't always convince (a problem also with his recorded account) – most damagingly perhaps between the B-flat minor (XVI, restrained) and A-flat (XVII, too fast). Greater charm and phrased 'breathing', less getting from A to B as quickly as possible, and fewer belligerent moments would have been welcome. The F-sharp (XIII) was special, the D-flat (XV) glowing – if slightly spineless in its soft-tensioned middle section. The C-minor (XX) impressed for its controlled dynamic terracing. The F-major (XXIII) pleased for its feathered touch. The idea – in II, IV and the final D-minor – of somehow divorcing right-hand from left, poeticising the image of a lone individual wandering a dark landscape, worked well.
Two encores rounded off the programme: Ren Guang's 1935 Colourful Clouds Chasing the Moon (all ripples and trills); and Chopin's E-flat Opus 9/2 Nocturne – plus ultra pianism notwithstanding dated off-the-beat ornaments.