The Four Ballades – in G minor, Op.23; in F, Op.38; in A flat, Op.47; in F minor, Op.52
24 Preludes, Op.28
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: 15 April, 2016
Venue: Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton University, Hampshire, England
Begun last November in his native China, Yundi is now near the end of his six-month Chopin recital tour that has spanned three continents. At Turner Sims he shaped the Ballades into a single span – pausing only for applause. Without hearing any of his previous recitals it is impossible to know whether his approach to the music has developed in any way or, as on this occasion, has become routine. With its sense of confident anticipation, the opening of the G-minor Ballade conveyed not so much a sense of promise but a matter-of-fact dryness. As the piece unfolded it became evident that Yundi’s compressed dynamic and emotional range was reducing the music’s narrative quality, and dramatic or wistful passages never quite achieved the needed emotional contrast. Part of the problem was the absence of any sense of direction; climaxes arrived as an unprepared surprise.
There was no doubt of Yundi’s assured technique, heard to impressive effect in the F-major Ballade where strong contrasts are built into its structure. But they would have had more impact with an opening tempo a fraction slower (conjuring more of a bedtime-story quality) and with the ensuing tempo a tad faster: it felt like a wild beast on a restraining order. This bland approach continued in the genial A-flat Ballade, given a mostly subdued rendition, warmth of tone and dramatic power appearing later, if with intimacy present in the opening pages and towards the end it was triumph that emerged, the final chords given tremendous weight. It was only in the more-cantabile F-minor Ballade that flickers of humanity from Yundi were heard and a wider dynamic range explored, with more thought given to the calibration of each note in repetitive figurations. There was too a sense of letting go and those perilous descending scale passages in the closing bars thrilled.
If limitations characterised the Ballades, compensation arrived with Yundi’s vivid account of the 24 Preludes. Highlights of these often-fleeting pieces included three soulful Largo examples (IV, IX, XX) – all expressive without over-egging the use of rubato – the latter magisterial with richly-sonorous tone. III (Vivace) was joyful and VIII (Molto agitato) was a breathtaking tsunami of notes. He stilled the room with the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude (XV) but his restrained volume in the central episode came as a shock. The final three – respectively barnstorming, tenderly eloquent and fiercely dramatic – belatedly showed that Yundi does possess great sensitivity and that he can harness his virtuosic gifts to poetic means. Yundi concluded the evening with a Chinese folksong and a Chopin Nocturne.
- Yundi reaches London on April 19 with this programme, Royal Festival Hall