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Yundi Li Plays Liszt and Chopin

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Chopin/Liszt, Piano Concertos No. 1, Yundi Li, Philharmonia Orchestra, Andrew Davis (released on February 13, 2007)
When Yundi Li won First Prize at the 2000 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, no one had received the top honor in 15 years. He is in prestigious company, rubbing shoulders with Krystian Zimerman (1975), Garrick Ohlsson (1970, the year that Mitsuko Uchida took Second Prize and Emanuel Ax received an honorable mention), Martha Argerich (1965), and Maurizio Pollini (1960). Angela Hewitt and Ivo Pogorelich won honorable mentions in 1980. Yundi Li was only 18 years old, the youngest pianist ever to win first prize and the first Chinese pianist to do so. Ionarts last reviewed him, very positively, in a recital at Strathmore last April.

Yundi Li:

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Vienna Recital (2006)

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Chopin Scherzos, Impromptus (2005)

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Chopin Recital (2003)

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Liszt Sonata (2003)

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Live at Chopin Competition (2002)
The pressure of early success at the highest level and concomitant high expectations must be a burden on a pianist, especially one so young. Yundi Li now lives in Hannover, where he is continuing to study at the conservatory with Arie Vardi. (Maurizio Pollini should be his model: Pollini was also 18, just slightly older than Li, when he won the Chopin Competition, and after he won First Prize he went on to study with a great player and teacher, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.) At an age when most musicians worry about their juries and accompanying other students' juries, Yundi Li has critics around the world dissecting his recordings and performances (not to mention, for whatever reason, his hairstyle and the clothes he wears in his glamor photographs). Comparisons to that other Chinese Wunderkind, Lang Lang, are inevitable, but while Li receives similar media-heavy treatment he comes across as a much more serious-minded performer. He is moving slowly, focusing mostly on the specialty that won him early acclaim, Chopin (NPR has three Chopin excerpts available for online listening)and Liszt, and the results are impressive.

The rendition of Liszt's first piano concerto on Li's new disc is exciting, gutsy playing, showcasing the necessary power and technical facility in the stormy first movement, with ethereal dreaminess and surging emotion in the overwrought slow movement. It is Li's admirable restraint and grace that stand out, as in the delicate duet with triangle in the third movement, metallic but feathery. This a performance with both flash and depth, which is the combination that reportedly won him the Chopin prize.

Li won the Chopin Competition playing Chopin's second concerto, but here he has recorded the composer's first concerto, in a quicksilver performance that effortlessly flows through the long-breathed, complicated lines. Andrew Davis leads the Philharmonia Orchestra in a competent rendition of the orchestral part. Made in a studio, the recording's sound seems somewhat over-engineered: and one can detect a few splices, of course, although there is a minor flub in the huge opening bars of the Liszt concerto that was allowed to remain. It is better to have a few blemishes here and there, which is why live performances are generally preferable to recorded ones.

Washingtonians have the chance to hear Yundi Li play the first Liszt concerto twice, with two different orchestras, in the near future. First, this Saturday evening (March 3, 8 pm), with Riccardo Chailly leading the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig at the George Mason University Center for the Arts in Fairfax. Second, in his debut with the National Symphony Orchestra (April 5 to 7) at the Kennedy Center, with Leonard Slatkin conducting.

Deutsche Grammophon 477 640-2

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