is Yundi Li’s fifth release for the prestigious German
yellow label; his first concerto recording.
having a hurried listen to this disc in the car my initial reaction
of excitement and satisfaction from the playing of Yundi Li hasn’t
changed. Only rarely do performances as excellent as these come
along that can be ranked alongside those established in the repertoire.
in 1982 in the People’s Republic of China, Yundi Li won the prestigious
1999 Liszt International Piano Competition in Utrecht and the
2000 Chopin Competition in Warsaw; were he performed Chopin’s
E minor concerto. Yundi Li has commented how rare it was
to encounter Western classical music in his homeland during his
formative years and how he first heard Liszt’s E flat Concerto
on 78 rpm records when he was nine and the Chopin E minor
Concerto aged fourteen. Growing up with these popular favourites
of the Romantic concerto repertoire Yundi Li has been performing
both regularly around the world for some years.
made the first sketches for his E flat major Concerto in
1830 and seems to have completed the score around 1849 making
revisions in 1853 and more adjustments again in 1856 prior to
publication. Dedicated to the piano virtuoso and composer Henry
Litolff it would be hard to imagine more eminent performers at
its premiere in Weimar in 1855 with the composer as soloist and
Hector Berlioz conducting. Liszt biographer Humphrey Searle in
1966 stated that the first concerto, “is not an entirely successful
work…” believing that the, “second concerto, is a very
much more successful work…”.
E flat major score is divided into four sections. The triangle
part in the third movement has been the cause of ridicule by some
over the years and influential critic Eduard Hanslick dubbed the
score the ‘Triangle Concerto’ a nickname now used
with affection rather than sarcasm.
Li does a magnificent job with the contrasting demands of Liszt’s
inconsistent genius, with writing that is brilliant one minute
and bordering on the vulgar the next. His playing is assured and
exciting, blending drama with poetry. The opening section has
an emotional searching quality to which Yundi Li gives an apt
and natural response. The sheer intensity of his playing at 3:57-4:09
is remarkable, with compelling tenderness at 3:57-4:09, creating
an air of mystery that closes the section. Love and romance were
clearly dominant in Liszt’s mind in the Quasi adagio section.
At 2:20 the composer seems uncertain what direction to take, however,
between 3:10-3:41 Yundi Li is assured in the gentle episode of
heartfelt beauty. I enjoyed the passages from 3:42 where the playful
woodwind perform over a preponderance of piano trills. Fluid and
agile playing in the third section becomes significantly assertive
from 2:58-3:59. The volume of the famous ‘triangle’ feels just
about right. In the final section I was especially impressed by
the superb orchestral playing from the Philharmonia under Andrew
Davis. Yundi Li is powerful and dramatic at 0:32-0:59 displaying
light-hearted playing of a scampering quality from 0:60-3:00 that
develops to a hair-raising climax of outstanding virtuosity.
the most fęted version of this score is the exhilarating and confident
recording from Krystian Zimerman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
under Seiji Ozawa. The recording was made at the Symphony Hall,
Boston in 1987 and is available on Deutsche Grammophon
423 571-2 with Liszt Piano
Concerto No.2 in A major and Totentanz.
I still treasure
my 1982 vinyl recording of the Liszt E flat major Concerto from
sparkling French soloist Cécile Ousset with the CBSO under Simon
Rattle on EMI ASD 4307 (c/w Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2).
I understand that this Ousset recording, with the same coupling,
has been released on CD on EMI CDC 7 47221 2 but I have not been
able to track down a copy.
dedicated the E minor score to his friend the virtuoso pianist
and composer Frédéric Kalkbrenner. With Chopin as the soloist
the E minor Concerto was premiered as the centre-piece at a ceremonial
farewell concert at Warsaw’s National Theatre in 1830. It was
only three weeks later that Chopin left his homeland never to
return to Polish soil. On account of its earlier publication the
E minor score is designated as the Piano Concerto No. 1 even though
it was the second of his two concertos to be written.
The massive opening
movement at over nineteen minutes is virtually equal in length
to the other two movements added together. In the extended opening
orchestral passage the Philharmonia
under Andrew Davis provide high quality support to the dramatic
and poetic playing. From the entry of the piano at 4:03
the playing is bold and beautiful catching the feminine quality
of Chopin’s fluid and lyrical lines. I found the slight hesitation
before crucial notes such as at 4:36; 5:15 and 7:14 cast a wonderful
spell. From 10:47 the tender flowing lines return with brilliant
passages containing an abundance of arpeggio runs. Yundi
Li performs with a crystalline quality displaying a subtle close
Interviewed for the ‘Promo Video’ to this release on
the DG website Yundi Li remarks, “the second movement is the most
important in this concerto” and infers strong influences to love
and romance. Yundi Li’s performance in the poignant Larghetto
has all the intensity of a passionate love letter.
At times his poetic and sensitive playing has a gossamer quality.
The concerto ends with a fiery and vigorous Rondo movement,
a Vivace in the form of a Krakowiak a syncopated
Polish dance from the Kraków region. The music gains in vigour
and intensity as Yundi Li confidently brings the score home to
a heroic conclusion.
reference performance of Chopin’s E minor Concerto is the authoritative
and spirited account from Krystian Zimerman with Carlo Maria Giulini
conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The recording
made in 1978 at the Los Angeles Music Center is on Deutsche Grammophon 415 970-2 (c/w Chopin Piano Concerto No.2).
booklet notes that accompany this release are interesting and
reasonably informative. I have read some criticism of the quality
of the sonics, a view with which I do not agree. The sound quality
seems characteristic of the yellow label, somewhat dry but generally
commendably clear. I found the playing crystal clear with the
orchestra slightly losing focus only in the peak forte
passages.. At only fifty-six minutes the playing time is ungenerous.
There is certainly room to have accommodated another substantial
work, such as Liszt’s Totentanz; Concerto pathéthique
or Chopin’s Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante
or the Variations on 'La ci darem la mano'.
Yundi Li excites and delights with these Liszt and Chopin
warhorses. He proves to be a performer of significant stature.
A remarkable concerto recording debut.
first four Deutsche Grammophon recordings:
1) Yundi Li - Chopin
Piano Works: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor; Andante
spianato and Grande Polonaise in E flat, Op. 22; Etudes
2 & 5, Op. 10; Etude 11, Op. 25; Nocturnes No.
1 & 2, Op. 9 & Nocturne No. 2, Op. 15
and Impromptu No.4 in C sharp minor, Op.66 ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu’.
Recorded in 2001 on Deutsche Grammophon 471 479-2.
2) Yundi Li performs
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178; Liebestraum
No.3; Widmung after Schumann: Liebeslied;
Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli; Rigoletto-Paraphrase
and La Campanella. Recorded in 2002 on Deutsche Grammophon
CD 471 585-2 & SACD 474 297-2.
3) Yundi Li -
Chopin Scherzi: Scherzi 1-4 and Impromptus
Nos. 1-3. Recorded 2004 on Deutsche Grammophon CD 474 516-2
& SACD 474 878-2.
4) Yundi Li -
Vienna Recital: Domenico Scarlatti Sonata No.
6, Kk 380: L 23 andante comodo & Sonata
in G, Kk.13; Mozart Piano Sonata No..10 in C major,
K.330; Schumann Carnaval, Op.9 and Liszt Rhapsodie espagnole,
S. 254. Recorded 2005 at the Musikverein, Vienna on Deutsche Grammophon
CD 477 557-1.