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Joseph HAYDN (1732 -1809)
Keyboard Sonata in B Minor, Hob XVI:32 [11:27]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810 - 1849)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Flat Minor, Op. 35 [24:38]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 - 1943)
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42 [17.54]
Franz LISZT (1811 - 1886)
Consolation No. 3 in D Flat, S172/3 [4.09]
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor, S244/2 [10.44]
George Li (Piano)
rec. live, October 4-5 2016, Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg
WARNER CLASSICS 9029581294 [68.56]

This is the debut recording of George Li who won the silver medal at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition. All of the works were recorded live in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Li is still a relatively young pianist at 22, but he displays a musical maturity beyond his years and, judging from his account of the Liszt second Hungarian Rhapsody, he clearly has a prodigious technique.

Li opened his recital with Haydn's B Minor Sonata which the composer published in 1776 as part of a set of six sonatas. B Minor was a particularly dark key for Haydn and this sonata features some of the composer's most sombre music, which foreshadows the music of Beethoven. In the opening movement, Li is crisp and light and the ornaments are executed with cut glass refinement. His phrasing captures the quintessential Classical elegance of the work and there iss close attention to the composer’s dynamic markings. Li could perhaps have done a little more to convey the very sombre nature of the sonata and on occasion I would have liked greater depth of tone. The Menuetto has a coy charm which works well and the phrases are nicely shaped and shaded. There is a sharp contrast with the trio which has a dark almost sinister edge. In the finale Li sustains the tension well with the quick fire repeated notes and his execution of Haydn's passage-work is dazzling. His performance compares well with other recordings of this sonata although I have a preference for Yevgeny Sudbin's recording as the Russian brings darker timbres and a more Beethovenian sound.

The next work on the programme was Chopin's ‘Funeral March' Sonata which Schumann described as “four of his most unruly children”. Li demonstrates some very fine pianism in this performance although his interpretation is not entirely convincing. In the opening movement he captures the breathless urgency of the first subject and contrasts that well with the heady romantic yearning of the second. However, the performance on occasion comes across as a little studied and pedantic particularly in the development section. The scherzo has rhythmic propulsion and flair while Li’s performance of the trio with its murmuring inner voices is highly expressive. I wondered if he could have given us a wider range of sonorities in the faster sections of this movement. The funeral march has a doleful tread and is played in a very earnest way although I felt that Li did not quite capture the sharp pang of death at the climax points or the unbearable intensity of this music. However, the lyrical middle section is given a gorgeous bloom and Chopin’s song was played with captivating beauty. The highlight of the sonata is the Presto finale which Li plays at an extremely fast tempo and with an impressive degree of clarity. I was particularly impressed with his shaping of the notes and the brilliant way in which he conveyed the swirling and howling of the wind over the gravestones. Overall, there was much to admire in this performance, particularly in the finale, although Li is not yet a front-rank interpreter of this work.

Rachmaninov wrote his Variations on a theme of Corelli in 1931 and, aside from some transcriptions, it was to be his last published work for piano solo. Li’s performance is thoughtful and reflective and there seems to be more of a focus on mining the poetry of this work than demonstrating virtuoso firepower. This particularly comes across in variations IV, XIV and XV which are played with a rapt beauty of tone and a beguiling lyricism. Li shows his virtuoso credentials in Variation VII and in the final four variations before the coda where he works up a head of steam. The coda languishes in a highly expressive way before Li drives the work to its conclusion with some seductive soft playing. There was much to admire here although Li’s performance does not quite have the range of invention shown by Daniil Trifonov in his recent recording.

Li concluded his recital with two works by Franz Liszt and these for me were the highlight of the recital. The Consolation in D flat is played with a silky touch and Liszt’s famous melody floats in an alluring way. The Second Hungarian Rhapsody is an electrifying virtuoso tour de force. Li tosses off Liszt’s pyrotechnics with aplomb and throws Rachmaninov’s cadenza into the mix just to make things even more difficult. This is great playing and would bring the house down in a live recital.

Robert Beattie



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