United Kingdom Chopin: Yundi (piano), Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.4.2016. (CC)
Chopin, Four Ballades; 24 Préludes, Op. 28
The cult of Yundi was out in force for his Festival Hall gig, part of the Southbank’s International Piano Series. Here for him rather than the music, this was a time for inappropriately timed applause and flowers thrust at him by young oriental girls (that bit can’t be bad). But what of the playing itself? Arriving in the huge shadow of Aimard’s Messiaen over at Milton Court at the weekend, Li had his work cut out to impress.
Not that he did, unfortunately. The First Ballade began with an ungainly “thunk”, and while the 6/4 section began nicely, the various parts well weighted, it was evident already that there was something not quite right, that Yundi was finding it difficult to enter inside the music rather than be what might be best termed a “participating observer” – playing the notes, not the music itself. His bright sound, while initially impressive in crystalline touch and clarity, lacks some heft; his mannerism of splitting simple right hand octaves was far from expressive, and certainly not spontaneous sounding. Missing the abandon leading into the coda, and missing one of the repeated chords in that coda completely, the feeling of the G minor Ballade was (for this reviewer) decidedly unsettled. Better was the Ballade No. 2, tender and delicate, the contrasting storm texturally clear; only the shallow coda reminded us that this isn’t really a master of the keyboard. The Third Ballade was the finest of the four, with some bejewelled playing, and nothing done for effect (the polar opposite of his compatriot Lang Lang). But the Fourth Ballade, the most interpretatively challenging of the four, was a mixed bag. Initially it flowed beautifully, but then some technical instability came in. Purity of line (almost Bachian) compensated to some degree, but the general effect was of instability, both interpretative and technical.
The Préludes had definite plus points: the perfectly projected melody of No. 4 (E minor, Largo); the superb filigree of the famous D flat (No. 15, the so-called “Raindrop”); the superb tolling bass pedal of No. 17 in A flat (countered by some carelessness of articulation elsewhere in this Prélude); the tremendous recitative-like declamation of No. 18 (F minor); the tremendous detail of No. 22 (G minor). Yet against this was a memory lapse in No. 19 (E flat): this reminded me that there’s a well-documented, disastrous memory lapse of Yundi’s during a concerto, also: not the sort of thing one expects from a young artist at this level. There was a rather strange reading of molto allegro (a slow D major, No. 5) and a clinical, unconvincing B minor (No. 6). He was decidedly unsettled also in No. 23, exactly when he shouldn’t be really, in the run-up to the great, final D minor Prélude. And as for that great final offering, Yundi simply missed its monumental aspect.
So, flowers despatched into Yundi’s hands, time for encores. Only two – was Yundi dissatisfied with his performances? One hopes he has the awareness to be. Anyway, what else does one offer as an encore after an all-Chopin programme other than some Chinese music? It was arranged, of course, by Yundi. Sweet, if nothing else: a post-prandial palette cleanser before a Chopin Nocturne, the E flat, Op. 9/2, to send us home to our beds,. Again, the performance was nice enough. The applause and standing ovation did rather make me feel I was alone in my disappointment, and the scrum to leave was not to head for the District Line; no, Yundi was doing a signing and it was first to the finishing post wins.
Yundi won the first prize at the 14th Chopin International Competition at the age of a mere 18, which one would hope was a pointer towards a special talent in this repertoire. Yet one can only comment on what was there on this particular evening. His most recent disc is an intriguing coupling of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and the Schumann Fantaisie for DG (Musicweb International review here).