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Measure For Measure

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/12/2008 -  
Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2 – Four Mazurkas, Op. 33 – Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise, Op. 22
Robert Schumann: Widmung, Opus 25, No 1 (Arranged by Franz Liszt)
Jian-Zhong Wang: Rosy Clouds Chasing After The Moon – Five Yunan Folk Songs
Modest Mussorgsky: Pictures At An Exhibition

Yundi Li (Pianist)

Yundi Li (© Stefan Cohen)

Like Callas-Tebaldi, Bach-Handel, and Yankees-Red Sox, 26-year-old Lang Lang and 26-year-old Yundi Li are supposed to be serious rivals. This rivalry is more racial than rational, since both are incredible technicians, both have movie-star looks, with adoring fans and rock-star status both in China and abroad.

I’ve heard Lang Lang several times, and while he has yet to grow as a great artist, his fingers are so dizzyingly good that one leaves a concert like leaving Cirque de Soleil, having witnessed true physical greatness. Lang Lang is an acrobat on the verge of becoming a ballet dancer (or maybe an old acrobat!), but the excitement is tangible.

Yundi Li is more difficult to characterize. He has been called more “poetic” than Lang Lang, but such poetry at times was without rhyme or reason, and was frequently devoid of real scansion. He could play a mean Chopin mazurka and a very poetic opening nocturne. At the same time, he almost wrecked part of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, and turned a Liszt delicate arrangement of Schumann into inappropriate fireworks.

As a stage pianist, he has all the makings of greatness. Tastefully coiffed, elegant, far younger-looking than his years but totally assured, he wouldn’t have looked out of place with a powdered periwig and a bejeweled harpsichord.

But no, Mr. Li was happy at his Steinway keyboard, starting with one of the more popular Chopin nocturnes. It was performed with the perfection of a Baroque gavotte. The tune sang, it was graceful, and served as a kind of benison for the entire program. The four mazurkas of Opus 33 presented greater challenges, for the pieces are moody, quirky, not quite “right” as a Chopin salon piece should be. That first one in G sharp minor has pathos which is almost depressive. Mr. Li played it with the same grace as the Nocturne, those depressing intervals played with simple finesse. The problem came with the second Mazurka, a bustling antic work that, in Mr. Li’s hands, was rushed into incomprehension. This was not a Lang Lang velocity, which is always transparent. Rather, the measures were clipped, the notes in different phrases were clapped together.

He didn’t fail at all in the final Mazurka, though I’m happy not to have had the score in my hands. His rubato was extreme, the crossed-hand section giving wonderful echoes of the main theme. The piece was personal, hardly orthodox, but gave indications of great things to come.

The final Chopin of the evening was the popular Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise, and the opening was liquid magic. When it came time for the Polonaise, Mr. Li was on thin ice. He rushed it mercilessly, banged away, and made less vivacious than violent.

But perhaps the most disappointing piece of the evening was the Schumann-Liszt Widmung (“Dedication”) Mr. Li made the most amazing leaps up and down the keyboard without a single error, with all the right timing, with simply heavenly technique. The work itself, though, remained on this earth, for again, when working with individual phrasing, the pianist’s notes became blurred, the quicksilver original song buried amidst the pyrotechnics.

The Chinese songs by Jian-Zhong Wang, part of the Chinese musical Establishment, were very pretty. The Yunan songs didn’t sound very Yunanese (which are jauntier, more Burmese-Thai than Han Chinese), but they were arranged for a good pianist. The first songs, though, had another attraction, since they sounded very much like the early folk song arrangements of Bartók,

The second half was devoted for the second time this week to Pictures At An Exhibition, this for piano virtuoso. I doubt whether Maurice Ravel could actually play it (he was a mediocre pianist), but Mr. Li took it not only in his stride, but in very gigantic strides, a very Colossus of the keyboard, he whizzed through the whole work with a velocity rarely heard. And that was the problem.

To explain. These are pictures, they aren’t Chopin études. But not an image could I find here. The contrast of the meandering rich Jew and the mawkish chattering poor Jew, so vividly composed, were nowhere to be found. The children in the Tuileries weren’t “playing”, they were viciously pulling each other’s hair. Baba-Yaga’s hut was simply another fast work, played relentlessly and loudly. In fact, while one can admire Mr. Li’s taking on Pictures, I have a feeling that nobody ever explained the Mussorgsky imagination. That was so unique that a pianist must perform the work as if the composer had come from another planet, not simply a “Russian Nationalist”, as the textbooks have it.

With his training, his confidence and audacity, Mr. Li is bound for greater things, as is Mr. Lang. For now, he does have a penchant for musical poetry. Soon, we hope, he will begin to understand the depths as well as the surfaces.

Harry Rolnick



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