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Paul Ji (piano)
Rec. July, 2020 at RIFFX Studio 1, La Seine Musicale, Boulogne-Billancourt
WARNER CLASSICS 9029515859 [76:29]

Paul Ji was born in Chicago into a Chinese family and raised in France from the age of 5 – he has now reached the grand age of 16. His online biography still describes him as aspiring, perhaps rightly so as he is currently at the École normale de musique de Paris Alfred Cortot studying with Jean-Bernard Pommier. He has won awards, notably first prize with honours in the 2018 Steinway piano competition (Paris) but it is his victory in season 6 of the French TV show Prodiges that prompted this CD. The short liner notes are a letter to the listener from Ji himself; the CD was recorded during the pandemic and he outlines what he hopes to bring to us in a year of destruction led by a viral pandemic and social division. Love and consolation through the works by Liszt and Chopin, the expression of suffering through the Scriabin Etude and praise for the heroics of medical care workers with Chopin's uplifting and ultimately triumphant A flat Polonaise.
Fine words and thankfully this young man has the talent to back them up with fine music making. Beyond the relatively little heard Tschaikovsky Meditation there are no real surprises in the programme, a selection of favourites that have appeared many times but are no less welcome for that. I appreciate the ordering of the repertoire, opening with grandeur, nobility and seering virtuosity, sets the tempestuous D flat étude of Scriabin as a lynch pin and continuing to what seems to be a slow movement, beginning with Chopin's posthumous Nocturne in C sharp minor and building to the impassioned climaxes of Tschaikovsky's andante maestoso. The disc is brought to a decisive close with Chopin's heroic Polonaise in A flat.
As for the playing it is remarkably mature and confident. Ji has more than enough technique to deliver a crystalline Black key étude and la Campanella, with plenty in reserve for the muscular coda and enough control of his technique to balance textures in the complex strands of the Rigoletto paraphrase; just the right bounce to the octaves in the final part of the quartet and a tumultuous cascade of octaves to round off the transcription. He scores on the lyric side as well with nice phrasing in the the Chopin Nocturne and Liszt Consolation. I find his playing less effective in the outer sections of Chopin's Étude in E where I detect a little stiffness to his melodic line though the fiery central section is impressive. In the familiar and once-hackneyed pages of Liszt's third Liebestraum he is sensitive to the origin of the work in song and finds real delicacy in the cadenzas, choosing cautious use of Liszt's marked affretando as he comes out of the impassioned central verse. I like that he has chosen three Tschaikovsky works; June subtitled Barcarolle, from the collection known as the Seasons, is a melancholy piece, its placid calm dispersed by a playful if moderately subdued dance in the middle while the Meditation is taken from his late collection of 18 pieces op.72. With its gentle swaying rhythm it has more of the barcarolle about it perhaps than June does but it strays into deeper waters and Li certainly enjoys the explosive outbursts at the heart of the piece as well as the mood of calm reflection that slowly fades away into silence. Pletnyev's masterly transcription of the andante maestoso from the Nutcracker suite is the final work in this trio of pieces by the Russian and Ji handles the multi-layered textures with skill and panache.

I enjoyed this whole programme; it is an excellent showcase for a pianist with real talent and flair. His technique is polished and while he amply flexes his muscles he doesn't feel the need to show off. If the tempo of his left hand octaves in the final Polonaise is pushed a little, quite effortlessly I might add, we can forgive a young champion enjoying his abilities. I would like to hear him in larger scale works but for now this is an impressive debut.
Rob Challinor

Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Grande valse brilliante Op.18 (1831) [5:56]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Grandes Études de Paganini No.3 La Campanella S.141 No.3 (1851) [4:55]
Peter Ilyitch TCHAIKOVSKI (1840-1893)
The Seasons – June, Barcarolle Op.37a No.6 (1875-6) [5:39]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prélude in G minor Op.23 No.5 (1901) [4:28]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum No. 1 from Children's Corner (1906-8) [2:46]
Frédéric CHOPIN
Étude Op.10 No.5 (1830) [1:48]
Franz LISZT after Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto S.434 (1855-9) [7:45]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Träumerei No.7 from Scènes d'enfants Op.15 (1838) [3:22]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Étude Op.8 No.12 (1894) [2:33]
Frédéric CHOPIN
Nocturne in C sharp minor No.20 Op.posth (1830) [4:50]
Consolation in D flat S.172 No.3 (1849-50) [4:11]
Méditation No.5 from 18 pieces for piano Op.72 (1893) [5:42]
Frédéric CHOPIN
Étude Op.10 No.5 (1832) [5:03]
Liebestraum S.541 No.3 (1850) [5:07]
Peter Ilyitch TCHAIKOVSKI arr. Mikhaïl PLETNEV (b.1957)
Pas de deux No. 7 from the Nutcracker Op.71 (1891-2) [5:43]
Frédéric CHOPIN
Polonaise in A flat Op.53 (1842) [6:38]

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