Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
Yundi Li (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: 28 February, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Prior to this concert, I was talking to the distinguished British pianist Malcolm Binns about this Chopin concerto, which he had first played in public at the age of 17 when he stood in for Artur Rubinstein. Binns shook his head and said that it makes horrific demands on the technique of even the greatest pianists, and that young aspiring virtuosos have always been attracted to it for that reason.
Yundi Li is certainly aspiring, only 21 years of age. Alas, the orchestral exposition was not encouraging: rhythmic attack was flabby, the phrasing was foursquare and Myung-Whun Chung made no attempt to refine the textures, failings that ran through the entire performance together with numerous examples of dodgy intonation and ensemble. Reservations are expressed about Chopin’s orchestrations, but with proper care and attention and real belief in the music, Chopin’s scoring can sound incisive and inspired.
Fortunately Li’s playing displayed altogether more commitment, grace and command. After his aristocratic first entry he played each of the three themes with a wide variety of touch, tonal and dynamic variation and some mild swooping and swooning in the phrasing. He also took real risks by hardly using either pedal, which can cruelly expose any technical blemishes. In the Larghetto he mused beautifully and the finale Krakowiak had real bounce and panache. His rubato is hardly natural though; he needs to invest the decorative elements with more fantasy; the slow movement needed greater sweetness of tone; and the very difficult ultimate coda sounded rather effortful. Nevertheless, Yundi Li is by some distance the best of the batch of young pianists I have heard recently.
Until hearing this performance, I was not aware that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was completely devoid of emotion. The opening trumpet call was literal and the Funeral March conveyed little sense of grief; there was no subtlety of dynamics or phrasing: every fortissimo passage was massively brass-heavy. At the start of the second movement, the strings needed far more attack and the first theme more swing and passion. Nowhere were there any subtle changes of tempo or emotion, which is the absolute essence of great Mahler conducting, and while the cello-led elegy was beautiful there was no sense of emotional ambivalence. When the big chorale arrived it was underwhelming, which was surprising given that every other climax was fff or above.
The scherzo was fast and exact but completely lacking in fantasy or the macabre, while the waltz interludes failed to dance and the coda conveyed no sense of wild abandon. There were also problems with the first horn, whose dynamic range was limited; the woodwinds, when allowed to characterise, played numerous wrong notes with serious lapses of ensemble. The Adagietto was smooth; there was no rise and fall or sense of breathing and the lower strings failed to sing in the final climax. Chung then interpolated a long pause before the start of the Rondo-Finale, which should follow attacca; in addition, the movement lacked the sense of the questioning or uncertainty that Barbirolli and Bernstein so memorably found here. Chung simply seemed to see the symphony as an exercise in orchestral sound and nothing more.