How do the two leading Chinese piano virtuosi match up against one another? Washington Performing Arts Society gave audiences the chance to answer that question this week, as Yundi Li played a recital on Wednesday night at Strathmore, just after Lang Lang's recital the previous evening. As mentioned in yesterday's review, it is reportedly Li more than Lang who has a reputation for technical showmanship in China. This pair of recitals tended to confirm that impression, that both pianists have extraordinary technical ability at the keyboard, with Li edging out Lang.
Yundi Li, pianist
In recording, too, Li has been more productive and serious-minded, with two fine concerto CDs (an astounding pairing of Prokofiev's second and Ravel, at least as much because of Seiji Ozawa and the Berlin Philharmonic, and an impressive Chopin/Liszt disc -- we also heard him play the Liszt no. 1 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra last year), three studio solo discs (Chopin Recital, Liszt, and Chopin Scherzos/Impromptus, all of them good), one live solo disc (Vienna Recital), and one Live in Concert DVD. Not a single offering in his discography could be described as fluff, just the way we like it.
Although Li's originally announced program scored more points than what he actually played -- pieces dropped included Liszt's second ballade, the Berg op. 1 sonata, Ravel's Jeux d’eau, and Ginastera's Danza Argentina -- his recital still had greater variation of color than Lang Lang's. The first half instead became a recapitulation of recent recordings, beginning with the Mozart C major sonata (K. 330), recorded on the Vienna Recital CD. (That he also played it on his Strathmore recital in 2006 seemed to bother no one.) It was Mozart of clarity and precision, perhaps over-restrained but with a singing melodic line and an unfussy awareness of form, in the way he gently allowed the recapitulation of the first movement just to happen, for example. The slow movement came off as slightly perfunctory, as if Li no longer found the piece all that interesting, and the third movement sounded far faster than what the mark Allegretto seems to indicate. As a result, some of those alabaster filigrees were slightly smudged and there was a dropped bass note at one point. Mozart is not yet a strength.
Chopin Scherzos, Impromptus
To my ears Chopin is Li's forte, hardly surprising for the youngest-ever first prize winner at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (in 2000, when Li was only 18). The easy part, relatively speaking, was the four op. 33 mazurkas and the E-flat nocturne (op. 9, no. 2). They were moody and mostly solid, with a quicksilver rhythmic pulse to the melancholy first mazurka (G-sharp minor) and a winning simplicity in no. 3 (C major). The main melody of no. 2 (D major) seemed to get cheated on its third beat, clipped or rushed: it didn't quite work, but the coda was a tour de force. With the fourth mazurka in the set (B minor), Li took that familiar, gorgeous melody and made it his own, with an idiosyncratic rhythmic approach resulting in exaggerated extremes of rubato, a sort of folksy accelerando and ritardando, especially in the crossed-hands sections. In the even more familiar Nocturne, Li simply let the tune sing, making for a graceful, peaceful performance, if perhaps undistinguished.
Li recorded Liszt's flashy arrangement of Schumann's song Widmung (poem by Friedrich Rückert) on his Liszt CD. His greatest achievement is that, even in the most stupendously difficult passages, Schumann's melody came through the obfuscation of Liszt clear as a bell and lovingly phrased, always as if sung with its words. Those technical demands were then met and exceeded by the concluding work, Chopin's Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, op. 22, which Li recorded on his Chopin Recital CD. You may remember that Evgeny Kissin played that piece, in his memorable recital last year, with seemingly endless strength. By contrast, Li approached the work as a colorist, etching the Andante's crystalline melody over murmuring arpeggiation and rendering those mercurial flourishes of the right hand like splashing water. Li's technique may not be as formidable as Kissin's, but he can make the tracery of Chopin sound so finely tooled and delicate. The coda was jaw-droppingly brilliant, with a consistent pulse and melodic contour at the same time.
The second half was devoted to what is likely to be a major part of Yundi Li's next album, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. We have reviewed the work, in its complete original version for piano, a few times, as played by Adam Neiman (January 2008), Wonny Song (May 2006), and Fazil Say (April 2006). Li's gallery visitor was eager, pacing his steps in the opening promenade in a way that did not plod at all. Even when Li faltered technically, as he did especially in the final two movements, he refused to yield ground to a sense of caution. It was really Li's strengths as a colorist that stood out in this performance, in which he sketched out a Gnomus that was equal parts furtive eyes and scurrying feet and a Tuileries that featured layered terraces of the playground's sound world. His spiky-fingered Bydlo was not overly weighty and, true to form, his rendition of the Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells was spacey and giocoso, a sweet trifle of sentimental kitsch.
Anne Midgette, A Classic Contrast (Or So It Seems) (Washington Post, March 15)
Kenneth Herman, A Curious Show of Virtuosity (San Diego Arts, March 8)
Chris Pasles, Live: Yundi Li (Los Angeles Times, March 6)
Timothy Mangan, Pianist Yundi Li makes it quick in Costa Mesa (Orange County Register, March 5)
Li's skill at limning vignette scenes kicked into high gear in the Mussorgsky, with a loquacious Samuel and Schmuyle movement that gave a sense of recitativo conversation even when both speakers were ranting in manic octaves. The gossips of the Limoges market prattled with startling rapidity (and more than a few missed notes), and Li seemed to suck all the air out of the two movements in the catacombs, speaking the language of the dead. Sadly, there was only one encore, and Li chose to play his Chinese selection first, which again favored his talent for finesse over sheer power (he can have the latter, as he demonstrated with a wallop in his recording of the second Prokofiev concerto). A little more applause could have elicited some more Chopin.
The next concert presented by WPAS features pianist Alfred Brendel's final recital performance in Washington (March 17, 8 pm). It is one of the most important concerts of the season.