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Chopin, Mahler: Yundi Li (piano), London Symphony Orchestra Myung-Whun Chung (conductor) Barbican Hall 28.2.2006. (AR)


After recently hearing Myung-Whun Chung’s paradigm performance of Brahms’ First Symphony with the LSO at the Barbican Hall, I was eagerly anticipating another memorable evening of music making. That was the case once again, except for the pianist Yundi Li.


The symphonic opening introduction (Allegro maestoso) of Chopin’s  Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) had the appropriate romantic orchestral resonance and was dramatically and spaciously conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. Dynamics and tempi were perfectly judged with balanced and committed conducting and playing – the hallmark of the orchestra's performance throughout.


Yundi Li however, seemed alien to composer, conductor and orchestra equally and came across as cold and clinical, playing in a detached and mechanical manner. Such was his sterile glossy sound (brittle in tone, clangourous and harsh with little dynamic contrast or variation in colour or mood) that Li sounded just like a digital CD: hard, clinical and coarse - played on cheap glaring speakers. Nothing felt left to chance in this reading and so few risks were taken (the essential ingredient for great performers) that there was literally no ‘interpretation’ of the work in hand. This was a preconceived version of the score and totally without spontaneity: I could not imagine Li radically rethinking the work or even playing it more subjectively, ie with some emotion. The usually sublime Romanze – Largetto went for next to nothing here, with Li sounding dull and shrill toned at the same time and in a sense the soloist was absent; the notes could be heard but personality was missing.  The Rondo vivace was also mechanical, sounding as though on auto-pilot with the notes mimetically remembered.

I have recently heard two performances of Mahler’s
Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor with the LSO, conducted by Pierre Boulez and Mikko Franck. Boulez was brisk and on the fast side similar to Scherchen’s  whilst Franck’s reading was absurdly slow and reminiscent of Celibidache. Chung offered a more measured and balanced account   - somewhere between these extremes - and the LSO played far better for him.


Chung conducted without a score and the LSO were on high alert with players responding to his economical commands. The Funeral March was taut and manic but also broadly measured, setting up a sense of threatening menace and impending disaster. Unlike the Boulez performance where the opening trumpet solo fell apart, this time the soloist survived admirably; indeed, throughout the piece the brass were wonderful as were the incisive percussion. In the quieter moments for strings, Chung slowed the pace slightly as if to set up another mood and prepare for greater tensions to come. But the music never dragged and Chung held this nerve-wracking movement together splendidly.


As in Mikko Franck’s reading, Chung also slowed down in the Allegro for the reflective and soft string passages – but the music held together perfectly (as it failed to do with Franck) and contrasted well with the faster, more violent outbursts from brass and percussion. We heard rhythmically taut timpani as well as appropriately hard and dry bass drum work, all played with a rarely-heard verve.


The Scherzo does not match the first two movements in terms of tightness of structure or in musical content and often falls apart, containing as it does, much padding and repetition. Scherchen made radical cuts here – something that Mahler actually approved of since he often advised conductors to cut or re-orchestrate his works if they so they desired. Chung conducted this uncut version with a wonderful lilting grace, understanding all of the movement's moods from its melancholia to approaching madness. Here, the crying horn call solos were perfectly controlled: each beautifully done and radiating tears of gold.


The highlight of the evening was the Adagietto which was serene and sedate, stripped bare of the usual schmaltz often associated with it – largely due to Visconti's chocolate box ‘Death in Venice’. Chung conjured up the sensation of making the strings sound distant as if played from afar, giving us the evocation of a hazy memory of touching the face of time long lost. Klemperer said of the Adagietto that “it came too close to salon music’ - but all of its poignant beauty was evident here. The strings and harp played with a sensitive reserve that made the music sound more moving than usual (but never sentimental) and left the audience in a spellbound silence.


After such an extraordinary experience, the concluding  Rondo-Finale was something of an anti-climax – even though it is made from multiple climaxes that never quite come off. Indeed, much of the material in this movement is padding again - a lot of hot air signifying nothing but noise for noise’s sake - which (as in the Scherzo) might also usefully be cut in my opinion. Nevertheless, Chung and the LSO made this eternally long sounding movement (though in fact, it's not long by Mahler’s standards) fly by, getting the music to catch fire and conclude in a cacophony of sensational sounds. This was a highly revelatory and deeply moving ‘Mahler 5’ and both orchestra and audience gave Chung a well deserved ovation.  It is high time that the LSO made Chung their music director.




Alex Russell


Further listening:


Frederic Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 11; Emil Gilels (piano), Philadelphia orchestra, Eugene Ormandy (conductor); Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2; Op. 21; Charles Rosen (piano), New Philharmonia Orchestra, John Pritchard (conductor): Sony Classical: SBK 64047.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen (conductor): TAHRA - Harmonia Mundi: TAH 422 58:14.



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