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Mozart, Schumann, Liszt, Chopin:
Yundi Li (piano), QEH, 15.05.2006 (CC)

On paper, Yundi Li has it all. Not least among his achievements is a Deutsche Grammophon contract. His victory at the Chopin Competition in 2000 is no small feat, either. And the media hype had worked, too – he was greeted by a completely full QEH for this 'expanded' recital.

Originally the programme had seemed distinctly short measure – two Chopin Scherzos, the Andante spianato and the Liszt B minor Sonata. This grew into Mozart Sonata, K330, Schumann Carnaval, Liszt B minor and the Chopin Andante spianato, altogether a more realistic proposition.

For all the technical challenges that spilled from most of the scores, it was the Mozart that stretched Li the most. From the initial stab at the first note through the pedestrian left-hand accompaniments, the clipped rhythms and the rhythmic instabilities it was clear this was not Li's music. Worse, his long-range hearing needs developing. If one loses a sense of line and/or structure in Mozart, the resulting set of gestures simply do not hang - such was the case here. The slow movement, if performed like this at the Wigmore Hall with its over-compensating tonal projection, would have been near deafening. Ornaments lost any sense of spontaneity. If the finale had some moments of subtlety, it still features hard-edged sound.

Schumann's Carnaval is no interpretative walk in the park, either. Here is a real sequence of smaller pieces, but there has to be an over-reaching thread also. It is true Li enjoyed himself more here, and if the music could be nice and playful it still remained true that more colour was required. Bolet (when I heard him live at the RFH) had an infinite palette at his command – Li was more black and white with occasional sepia. True, he avoided bombast and set the occasional land speed record, but rarely did Schumann peek out from between the notes.

Technically, Liszt's B minor Sonata was stunning. Li's sound was bright but not metallic, his octaves jaw-dropping and his finger clarity superb. But again there was the feeling of a sequence of only vaguely connected moments (the initial bare octaves – bumps with rests in between – encapsulating Li's reading in microcosm). No wonder the audience was restless in the non-virtuoso passages; no wonder the calm after the climactic storm sounded forced. At the close, the audience applauded immediately. No basking in the post-Lisztian afterglow here, but somehow that seemed appropriate.

Finally Chopin's Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, complete with lumpy phrasing. And if mathematics can refer to something 'tending towards zero', then I can refer to Li 'tending towards the intimate'. The implication was there, just as the swagger of the Polonaise was more implied than realized.

There is no doubting Li's technical ability, but he needs a time-out to really come to terms with what lies beneath the surface of these wonderful pieces. Personally I would like to hear him again in five years' time. It really was too soon to present these works.


Colin Clarke




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)