Liszt Yundi 4715852

Déjà Review: this review was first published in September 2003 and the recording is still available.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B minor (1853)
La Campanella (1851)
Widmung (d’après Schumann) (1848)
Liebesträume No.3 (1850)
Tarantella (1859)
Rigoletto Paraphrase (1859)
Yundi Li (piano)
rec. 2002, Teldex-Studio, Berlin
Deutsche Grammophon 4715852 [59]

20-year-old Yundi Li possesses an impressive CV. Career Objective? To be ‘the next Zimerman’. Work Experience? Third place at both the Liszt International Piano Competition (1999) and the China Piano Competition (1999), followed by victory at the Chopin Competition in 2000 – the first person to be awarded the top prize for 15 years. His second CD for Deutsche Grammophon adopts the same format as that of his previous all-Chopin CD (DG 471 479-2), designed to appeal to as wide a market as possible. In both cases, DG’s marketing division have constructed a programme that targets those who can enjoy a half-hour-long piece (for them, a sonata), and those who can’t (for them, some popular miniatures).

‘The B minor Sonata is like a whole person’s life’, explains Li as he approaches the piano to show us what he means. During the next thirty minutes he plays us through a musical photo-album, invisibly gesturing at each and every musical phrase with such love and eagerness that by the end one is left wishing he’d distributed his attention proportionally to just a selection of the most significant moments. As is now a prerequisite for any up-and-coming recording artist, the technique is effortless. Its musical rewards, however, do not stand out in a highly competitive market. Compare Li’s interpretation to three previous Chopin Competition laureates; listen to how Krystian Zimerman balances the drama in the work and how naturally he allows the music to develop, how Maurizio Pollini develops a gritty, single-minded vision, or how an espresso-powered Martha Argerich tears through in a performance which surely ranks as one of the most exciting in the catalogue, and one is reminded of what Li falls short of. Nevertheless, this is a praiseworthy effort from a 20-year-old which bodes well for his future.

The rest of the CD is filled with what can be described as five encore numbers, all neatly played with a graceful insouciance, and I have just one general observation to make about how Li approaches these pieces. Some prefer their Liszt shaken with a passion that loosens notes from their respective positions on the score, the sort of performance through which one can detect the image of the composer – a man who peeled off a pair of white gloves before tossing the music to be performed over his shoulder, made ladies in the audience swoon during his recitals, and even turned the piano round during the interval to show off the other side of his profile to the gallery. In places, Li obliges. For example, in the final pages of the Tarantella (the third of three pieces from Venezia de Napoli), Li vomits a cascade of repeated notes and chords in one giant breath, overshadowing the respective displays of Lazar Berman and Stephen Hough. For the most part, however, Li keeps his mouth firmly shut (as he does in all seven photos included in this package) to the order of Civility and Clarity and it is only in the last few bars of the three showstoppers that the Sisters lift their curfew.

Overall, this is a satisfying CD which provides an honest appraisal of Yundi Li’s remarkable talent. I recommend it to anyone interested in the music Liszt or the artistry of Li.

Michael Macmillan

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