My first encounter with this pianist was several
years ago when I came across his recording of piano concertos by Chopin
and Liszt. I enjoyed it so much that I acquired his Liszt recital, which
contained a superb Sonata in B minor. The highlight was a breathtaking
Verdi/Liszt Rigoletto Paraphrase, a work I had not enjoyed so much since
the performance by Byron Janis, recorded in the nineteen-fifties. The
CD went on to be named ‘Best CD of the Year’ by the New
York Times in 2003, and deservedly so.
Li Yundi was born in 1982 in Chongqing, China. He is from a non-musical
family. At the age of eighteen in 2000, he became the youngest pianist
to win the International Frederick Chopin Piano Competition. He was
later the subject of a documentary: ‘The Young Romantic: Yundi
Li’ in 2008. At the age of thirty Yundi, as he now promotes himself
- his previous discs were marketed under the name Yundi Li - has decided
that the time is ripe to issue his first Beethoven recording. He has
chosen for this CD the three ‘named’ sonatas: Pathétique
. This appears, at first sight,
to be a very daring move, given the number of other pianists who have
traversed this well-trodden road. So, does he have something new or
different to say?
The accompanying notes tell us that Chopin is Yundi’s favourite
composer, yet he feels that he now wants to explore Beethoven. He has
chosen these three particular sonatas as they are the ones he prefers
and they are popular with the listening public; they are ‘very
beautiful and passionate’. He goes on to say that ‘Beethoven
is a Romantic. He has a different, Germanic side of the Romantic style
to Chopin - and this is something I want to show the audience.’
Yundi begins his programme with the Pathétique
. This was
Beethoven’s own title for the work, naming it Grande sonate
. The C minor opening chord ushers in the solemn,
dramatic prelude to the first movement, marked Grave
. This has
much more significance than is at first apparent, as it makes two further
appearances later in the movement, albeit in shortened form. Yundi’s
opening does not quite evoke the gravitas achieved by others including
Goode (Elektra Nonesuch 7559-79328) and Gilels (DG 453 221). His allegro
is, however, well-paced. The Adagio cantabile
movement is like a breath of fresh air; not at all wallowing in sickly
sentimentality. The finale is extrovert and brilliantly played, with
a brisk tempo. I love the capriciousness with which he negotiates 1:52-2:18.
Next comes the ubiquitous Moonlight
Sonata - not Beethoven’s
title. As this work has been over-popularised, any new entrant must
have something fresh to say. Yundi’s first movement is successful
and is exquisitely sketched and with classical poise. The Allegretto
on the other hand, lacks warmth and charm. The finale, at breakneck
speed, is well articulated and lives up to the Presto agitato
marking in Beethoven’s score.
Sonata is the longest and most technically demanding
of the sonatas presented here. It is certainly my favorite of the three.
I prefer Barenboim’s opening which is quiet and tenebrous, allowing
the drama to emerge slowly from the darkness (EMI 5669762). After all,
Beethoven marks this opening pp
. The second movement, a tranquil
with variations, certainly gives Yundi the opportunity
to show the audience the romantic side to Beethoven. Once again, I felt
that Barenboim conveyed a more poetic vision. Yet, if there are some
minor shortcomings in the first two movements of Yundi’s Appassionata
not so in the third. This is a technical tour de force
. Not since
Pollini has such stunning virtuosity been put to the service of this
music; it will knock you out of your seat!
Despite some reservations, I enjoyed these performances very much. The
piano sound matches the usual DG high standard for clarity and definition.
The excellent notes are by Jeremy Nicholas. This recording of three
warhorses of the Beethoven piano sonata repertoire, puts Yundi in good
company, along with Arrau, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Brendel and Kempff.
It is an auspicious start to an enriching journey.
Masterwork Index: Pathétique