Yundi Li, piano: Works by Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt, Orpheum, July 2, 2015.

Lang Lang and Yundi Li have achieved the status of two of the most visible ‘darlings’ of emerging markets pianism.  As is well known, they have spawned a veritable industry of debate on the merits of their interpretative talents, and on their exact role in extending the reach of classical music to a globalized ‘youth’. Yundi Li won first prize at the Chopin International Piano Competition in 2000 at the age of 18, becoming the youngest and first Chinese winner in the history of the competition, and since has recorded over ten CDs for Deutsche Grammophon.  After 15 years, critics have sharpened their views on what Lang Lang has achieved and can say musically, but what about Yundi Li?

This concert, boldly sponsored by the Vancouver International School of Music, was planned as one of those large venue events reserved only for the iconic, but while Lang Lang’s concert earlier this year sold out months in advance, it actually took some work to get people to this one.  That is probably because Lang Lang does emphatically play the role of an icon and seemingly relishes endless social engagement and publicity everywhere he travels.  Li seems almost the opposite: an icon who doesn’t really want to be one.  He did not look particularly comfortable coming on stage to greet the swarms of young people and also managed to avoid a reception after this concert.  That said, it truly must be a forbidding prospect to perform in front of an audience of this sort: with the young children present, all the bangs and crashes throughout the theatre, ushers letting latecomers enter during the performance and circling the seats looking for those who might attempt to steal a photograph.  Then, the cell phones and iPads that stubbornly refuse to turn off, plus the unrelenting applause between movements.  The pianist at least had a good solution for the latter: he simply continued to play on without waiting for the applause to end. Under these circumstances, I myself might be tempted by a more radical solution: namely, exiting the stage and getting into the nearest taxi.

Li has always been admired for his technical brilliance and dexterity, and I have thought highly of his clean keyboard touch and control.  His two opening Chopin Nocturnes exhibited exactly this but, perhaps because of initial pressures, they also tended to be emotionally aloof and pale, and lacked imagination in phrasing.  The interpretations were ‘pretty’ but effete.  The Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise allowed Li to open up greater freedom of expression, but now the pianist flirted with almost the other extreme, with so many different tempos, hesitations and dramatic emphases that it was a problem discerning any natural pulse in the music.  This may have been a nostalgic throwback to ‘old world’ Chopin, but it was difficult to take it very seriously.

The best parts of the concert lay in in the bigger works that pianist has recently recorded, and in particular the Schumann Fantasy.  The opening movement was given a nice lyrical breadth, with tender and affecting warmth at many points.  This was thoughtful pianism, concentration broken only by occasional attempts to speed up and by a hint of aimlessness in the movement’s quietist moments.  The following march was very fine too: keenly structured with strong articulation.  Perhaps only the finale failed to find the requisite depth, emerging as very breezy at its quick pace.  The movement had a quiet serenade-like feel throughout yet never really touched anything that was intimate or sad.  From one perspective, I suppose this is better than an overly grandiose and passionate treatment but this approach hid dramatic tensions that are important.

Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ got off to a good start, but I soon felt that the phrasing needed to be more purposively arched – something more than just ‘notes’.  Attention instead was given to glittering trills and the like: in reality, too much seemed over-adorned and calculated.  Indeed, some of the sparkling projection seemed very Chopinesque.  After a rare technical glitch at the opening of the Andante, we were then treated to lovely flowing expression for most of the movement.  This was fine concentrated playing -- and moving too -- but symptomatic of the pianist’s tendency to ‘have to do something extra’, the spell was broken completely by intensely-hammered chords later on.  The finale was sleek and virtuosic, not really leaving much space to build anticipation, but finishing in the flurry that it should.  Overall, this performance did some things well, had obvious technical fluency, but still skated over a lot, making the work emerge as something lighter and less visionary than it might be. 

The closing Liszt ‘Tarantella’ from Venezia e Napoli unfortunately did not hold my interest for long, being moved all over the place with excessive brilliance and thrust.  Perhaps the only purpose of this final piece was to get the young audience to sit up and take notice and stop fiddling with their cell phones.  But not for long: many of them started to leave right after the music stopped, perhaps not knowing there could be an encore.  And there was in fact no encore.

What I took from this concert is that, for both Yundi Li and Lang Lang, their days of fostering only brilliantly-projected ‘note spinning’ and ‘dazzle’ are very slowly receding into the past.  In both parts of the Fantasy and the ‘Appassionata’, Li found a much deeper lyrical response that was genuinely touching.  Before, the same passages might have come out with a cloying sentimentality of popular film music.  Nonetheless, the pianist has not fully solved the problem of how to internalize the natural flow of the music over the longer span, still relying on unnecessary rubato or dramatic emphases to push the music’s motion and content.  In reality, these do not move the music forward; they stop it cold.  But I am happy with what I saw: it was not the easiest concert setting for any pianist to perform in, let alone probe profound depths.  I will be most interested to see how these works come out by the time the pianist reaches Carnegie Hall, his final destination on this 2015 tour.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015