Don Juan, Op.20
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40
Yundi Li (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 5 March, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City
This concert marked Riccardo Chailly’s first appearance at Carnegie Hall as Kapellmeister of the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Following in Mendelssohn’s distant footsteps, Chailly has held the position since September of 2005. The programme was an exciting one, pairing two orchestral showpieces by Richard Strauss with a flashy piano concerto by Liszt that gave Yundi Li plenty of room to display his digital dexterity.
The concert began with a vibrant and stylish performance of Strauss’s Don Juan. Riccardo Chailly conducted the lurching and lyrical work with vigor, clarity, and brilliant colorings, drawing a richly voluptuous response from the Gewandhaus strings.
Then came Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the work the critic Eduard Hanslick dismissively dubbed the “Triangle Concerto” (due to that instrument’s prominence in the third of the four linked movements) when it premiered in Vienna. Yundi Li came to world-wide attention in 2000 when, at the age of 18, he took first prize at the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, the first Chinese winner, and the first participant in 15 years (the competition is held at 5-year intervals) to be awarded the prestigious Gold Medal. His current performance and recording schedule seems to focus largely on works by Liszt and Chopin. In his most recently released Deutsche Grammophon disc, Liszt’s First Piano Concerto is paired with the First of Chopin’s.
In this performance, Yundi Li was dazzling. The work gave him plenty of room to display his increasingly expressive skills as well as his colossal technical talents. His immensely assured playing was not only high-powered and technically brilliant, it was also full of intense emotion and subtle nuances. He was most impressive in the scherzo-like Allegretto vivace, initiated by that famous solo triangle (an irritant on this occasion), where he flawlessly alternated delicately lyrical passages with crescendos of great emotional depth.
Given a long, standing ovation and warm encouragement from Chailly, Yundi Li offered an encore in which his expressive talents were most evident: a breathtaking rendering of Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s song, Widmung. This was some of the best Liszt playing I have ever heard.
After the intermission the music turned again to Richard Strauss, this time Ein Heldenleben, the composer’s flagrantly narcissistic portrait of himself as a young hero. While many conductors cannot resist exaggerating every glittering outburst and swelling crescendo in this opulent and exuberant work, Chailly avoided such extremes. His conducting was as admirable for what it avoided as for what it accomplished. Instead of coming across as heavy, exaggerated or pompous, the music sounded lithe, clear and exuberant. The Gewandhaus players repeatedly displayed their astounding virtuosity, most notably in the bright-sounding woodwinds and the exquisite violin playing by the Concertmaster.
The audience responded by giving the Gewandhaus musicians and Riccardo Chailly a tumultuous, standing ovation. For an encore, there was more Strauss: a voluptuous and decadently sensuous performance of ‘The Dance of the Seven Veils’ from his opera “Salome”.