TWO CAPTIVATING YOUNG PIANISTS
George Li, piano, Juho Pohjonen, piano, Playhouse, December 4 and October 30, 2011
When 16 year old George Li came on stage, it was obvious to us all that something very special was about to happen. Here is the child protégé that first performed at Boston’s Steinway Hall at the age of 10, made his Carnegie Hall debut the next year, and who has already appeared with a wide variety of orchestras and even been chosen to play at important ceremonial events. The Vancouver Recital Society had previously brought Lang Lang and Yundi Li for us to see when they were young. So the obvious question: Will George Li be the next one to stand up?
It only took a few bars of the opening Czerny Variations to see that we were dealing with a real pianist, one with a wisdom and insight far beyond his years. Stunning technique of course --those little fingers can really move -- but it was the thoughtfulness and far-sightedness of his playing that was so evident. Playing the notes are one thing, ‘making the piano sing’ -- to use the pianist’s own words -- is quite another. Listening to the exquisitely jeweled, atmospheric opening of Ravel’s Oisieaux Tristes, the beautifully-burnished quiet tones in Liszt’s Concert Etudes, one had to be amazed by Li’s superlative tonal control, concentration, and sheer awareness of beauty. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can of course be a barnstorming work, but I have seldom heard it given such inner feeling and variety alongside its bravura. Frankly, even among the countless performances available, I would be quite satisfied to live with these. The Bach and Liszt encores confirmed the same feeling.
All the above are shorter pieces, and naturally some seams did show in the challenging Beethoven ‘Appassionata’ Sonata earlier in the program. This was certainly powerful enough, but slightly unsettled and jumpy at points, with a slow movement that could have been more focused. Nonetheless, I probably prefer the outlines of this Appassionata to the more soft-centered one that Lang Lang gave us last year.
A memorable concert and a clear highlight of the VRS’s fall season. We will watch this pianist with the greatest expectations.
A month earlier, Juho Pohjonen, the widely-heralded 31 year old Finnish pianist, with his wonderfully expansive keyboard sweep, returned to the Playhouse with another interesting program. His opening Beethoven ’Pastoral’ Sonata was most impressive, showing a keen awareness for both structure and tonal shading, and establishing exactly the right pulse for the work from beginning to end. The understated beauty of this work is not always easy to bring off! After a clean and fluid Debussy Estampes, the main work was one of the crowning glories of the keyboard: Chopin’s 24 Preludes. Pohjonen gave a more masculine reading of these varied little pieces than one might be used to. This certainly paid dividends in the more demonstrative preludes, giving them an almost Brahmsian weight and fire, but I am not sure how successful this approach was in the softer, more achingly-beautiful pieces. With relatively unyielding phrasing and deliberate tempos, some of these really seemed too heavy and laboured to capture the fragile sentiment involved. I personally like my Chopin to have more charm, sparkle and intimacy but there is no denying the interest in the pianist’s experiment. Juho Pohjonen again continues to impress with his strong intelligence and sensitivity.
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© Geoffrey Newman 2011