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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op.13 Pathétique [18:04]
Piano Sonata No.14 in C sharp minor, Op.27 No.2 Moonlight [15:54]
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 Appassionata [23:10]
Yundi (piano)
rec. TELDEX Studio, Berlin, 6 July 2012
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 476 5049 [57:14]

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, Moonlight and Appassionata. 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 pathétique. 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 di molto is, however, well-paced. The Adagio cantabile second 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.
The Appassionata 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 Andante 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. 

Stephen Greenbank 

Masterwork Index: Pathétique ~~ Moonlight ~~ Appassionata