Yundi Li

Mozart
Sonata in C, K330
Schumann
Carnaval, Op.9
Liszt
Sonata in B minor
Chopin
Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op.22

Yundi Li (piano)


Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 15 May, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Yundi Li is another young Chinese pianist who is gradually establishing a worldwide reputation; here he played a programme designed to show his adaptability. In the Mozart he used very little pedal. The last time I heard him play, in a Chopin concerto, he even eschewed its use – but in Mozart such asperity is justified. Li compensated by using micro-dynamics and subtle rallentandos. Unfortunately, in the slow movement, his phrasing and pulse was leaden – although the central section was more affecting. And while the finale was jaunty, the phrasing needed more inflection and a greater sense of line. Most of these sonatas need some help from the performer, but Yundi Li didn’t offer much here.

Schumann’s Carnaval is an early work, but its preamble and twenty sections make great demands on technique. As in all worthwhile music, especially Schumann’s, technique should only be used for interpretative ends – never showmanship. His opening was fast and powerful, but slightly rushed, as was ‘Pierrot’, Schumann’s eccentric rubato glossed over. ‘Arlequin’ sounded psychotic, with too much attack, the ‘Valse’ danced but the rhythm lacked flexibility and in ‘Eusebius’ the cross-rhythms were too rigid. In the final ‘March’, in which Schumann tramples on the Philistines, there was plenty of sound and fury but the rhythm became metronomic in the great waves of arpeggios. This lack of flexibility compromised every aspect of the interpretation; there were many moments of beauty and dazzling impetuosity, but the pianist’s use of rubato was minimal and he failed to capture the composer’s ever-changing tonal, rhythmic and, thereby, emotional palette. (Solomon’s 1952 recording of Carnaval is an object lesson in how to play Schumann.)

Following the interval, I heard, for the third time recently, a young pianist making the mistake of following Liszt’s Sonata with a virtuoso showpiece. The Liszt is a true masterpiece and its haunting epilogue should be left to resonate – period! That said, Yundi Li gave a massively assured performance of the work. He launched the first theme with two bleak, staccato notes and questioning rubato; the second theme blazed and the third was visionary in tone, scale and projection. In the slower episodes the tempos never dragged and the tone was beautifully moulded. The interpretation was less successful in the repeats of the third theme; each appearance should mount in power and its final transformation after the ‘Presto accelerando’ should crown the work. But Yundi Li made more of the penultimate passage, allowing the dynamic to subside too far in the second half of its final appearance, and given his reluctance to use the sustaining pedal I was surprised that he allowed the final chord to sound for so (too) long.

His Chopin was more problematic. The Andante needed more rise and fall, more give and take, and the Polonaise needed to dance more. Everything was too literal and lacking in fantasy and the coda was laboured. As with the Schumann, the pianist’s lack of flexibility compromised what could have been a great performance. Nevertheless, he has real potential and if he can master rubato and rhythmic diversity he could become a master pianist.

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