Yundi (Li) Plays a Mixture of Chopin and Chinese Music in Istanbul Music Festival.

TurkeyTurkey Chopin, Zhang Zhao, Ren Guang: Yundi (piano), Istanbul Music Festival, Cemal Resit Rey Concert Hall, Istanbul 02.6.12 (AM)

F. Chopin: Nocturnes: B flat minor, Op.9, No.1; E flat Major, Op.9, No.2; F sharp Major, Op.15; D flat Major, Op.27, No.2; C minor, Op.48 No.1;
Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op.22; Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, Op.35.
Zhang Zhao: Pi Huang (Peking Opera); In That Place Wholly Faraway (Qinghai Folk Song arranged by Zhang Zhao)
Ren Guang: Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon (arranged by Wang Jianzhong)

Istanbul Music Festival has long been a unique occasion for Istanbulites and visitors to the city to listen to choicest musicians and orchestras in the off season. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the festival is, once again, in no short supply of esteemed artistes. The festival venues are spread around the city –but you don’t really have to hop from one concert to the next, since almost each day is marked by one single event.

Yundi (who has lately dropped ‘Li’ from his stage name), made his Turkey debut in what is possibly the best concert hall in Istanbul: The Cemil Resit Rey concert hall, sonically superior to other fancier venues and located centrally. The hall has been taken off the radar for a number of years for classical music and it has instead been catering to more ‘traditional’ (i.e. Islamic) music and festivities, in line with the government policies (more on that when I write up the special Fazil Say evening which will take place on June 23rd). In any case, it was a pleasure to be in the beautiful hall for a classical music evening.

It is, of course, not realistic to expect a Yundi recital without Chopin. He is considered to be one of the most notable interpreters of Chopin’s music today -and deservedly so, as could be evidenced from his no-thrills, no-nonsense, B-flat minor nocturne that glided through the notes straight-up at a proper tempo, sparing us the snivel and the whimper. The lengthy middle-section was soft and dreamy, but swift. Yundi continued on to the E-flat major nocturne with an equally detached posture, giving the audience an ingenuous, sweet reading. His tone started to get more serious as he moved up on the opus numbers with a pointed F-sharp major nocturne that was a bit problematic in the turbulent middle section as a result of over-pedaling the left hand arpeggios. The D-flat Major nocturne had just the right amount of rubato and a forward leaning pulse which might have upset some listeners who need more time to contemplate on Chopin’s masterfully calculated in-and-outs between the minor and major territory. The last nocturne planned for the evening was the majestic C-Minor Op. 48 No.1. Yundi took the Lento very slow and set the groundwork for what he had planned for the rest of the piece. The intensity and the dynamics rose very gradually, creating a sudden contrast with a most piano chorale. Yundi’s extremely soft touch created some minor problems in the inner voices which were occasionally inaudible. However, the pianist’s rise from the depths of the chorale to the agitated doppio was triumphant.

Next up was one of Yundi’s specialties, the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise. The Spianato was played most delicately. His soft touch is particularly well suited to the gentle ripples of the music and the tender right hand melody. Yundi’s Grand Polonaise was full of vigor and fireworks with no concessions in terms of lightning-fast finger work and extreme dynamics.

The pianist closed his Chopin part of the program with the B-flat minor Sonata. He showed some signs of fatigue in the first two movements: neither his Grave-Doppio nor Scherzo were fully convincing. He, however, took a rest during the very grimly played Funeral March and ended the Sonata recharged with a hair raising presto.

While his Chopin was generally outstanding, I must admit I took more pleasure in the three delightful Chinese pieces tthat followed. Pi Huang’s complex rhythms and explosive bangers, surrounded by serene and placid songs were realized proficiently. Even better was Ren Guang’s following Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon. Built around a charming Chinese melody accompanied by pentatonic arpeggios and chords and many many tiny embellishments, the music was a true stand-out in the capable hands of the pianist. Concluding the evening was Zhang Zhao’s arrangement of the folksong ‘In That Place Wholly Faraway’. Zhao’s arrangement is mostly written with right hand arpeggios with the melody in the left hand. It looks and sounds extremely difficult to realize with an almost constant trill in the midst of many layers of music. It was not a problem for Yundi, however, and the pianist floated above the piece almost as if it was his second nature.

The winning evening came to a close with only one encore: Sunflowers. thankfully another Chinese traditional piece that was played with perfection.

Alain Matalon