Yundi Li After 15 Years

CanadaCanada Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt: Yundi Li (piano), Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 2.7.2015 (GN)

Chopin: Nocturnes, Op. 9, No. 1 and 2
Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante, Op. 22
Beethoven: Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, Op.57 ‘Appassionata’
Schumann: Fantasie in C, Op.17
Liszt: Tarantella from Venezia e Napoli, S.159


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, the youngest and the first Chinese winner in the history of the competition, and he has since recorded over 10 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 for the iconic, but while Lang Lang’s concert earlier this year sold out months in advance, it took some work to get people to this one. That is probably because Lang Lang emphatically plays the role of icon and seems to relish endless social engagements and publicity everywhere he travels. Li is 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 he managed to avoid a reception after the concert. That said, it truly must be a forbidding prospect to perform in front of an audience of this sort: young children, and all the bangs and crashes throughout the theatre; ushers letting latecomers enter during the performance and circling the seats to look for those who might attempt to steal a photograph. Then there were cell phones and iPads that stubbornly refused 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 cease. Under these circumstances, I 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 opening Chopin Nocturnes exhibited exactly this but, perhaps because of initial pressures, they 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 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 the pianist has recently recorded, the Schumann Fantasy in particular. 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 quietest 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 the 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 was given instead to glittering trills and the like: in reality, too much seemed over-adorned and calculated. Indeed, some of the sparkling projection was very Chopinesque. After a rare technical glitch at the opening of the Andante, we were 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. The finale was sleek and virtuosic, not really leaving much space to build anticipation but finishing in the flurry that it should. Overall, his performance did some things well and had obvious technical fluency, but it 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 did not hold my interest for long: it 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 the days of fostering brilliantly-projected ‘note spinning’ and ‘dazzle’ are 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, he has not fully solved the problem of how to internalize the natural flow of the music over the longer span, and still relies 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


Previously published in a slightly different form on


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