Review: Yundi Li’s All-Chopin Recital

Wednesday, March 23 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Yundi Li, piano

Chopin, 4 Ballades (1831, 1839, 1841, 1842)
Chopin, 24 Preludes, Op. 28 (1839-1841)

Not that long ago, if you had asked me what is the single greatest pairing between a classical music composer and a present-day musician, I would have said, easy, Frédéric Chopin and Yundi Li.  Back in the days when I only listened to Rachmaninoff and Chopin, I was absolutely transfixed by how Mr. Li’s graceful technique brought out every shade of melancholy in Chopin.  At the same time, he was never indulgent, a quality I admire greatly.  True, for several years now there have been rumors–even supposed video evidence–of Mr. Li’s musical decline, and last summer he had given a lackluster performance of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, but surely he wouldn’t disappoint back in his element with an all-Chopin recital, would he?

In retrospect, I think disappoint was probably not the right word.  Disappoint suggests having an off night, a performance subpar of one’s usual standard.  Mr. Li did not appear to have an off night.  A shell of his former self is who he is now.  There were occasional moments of brilliance–the grandiose octaves in the development section the opening ballade, the dirge-like A minor prelude, the persistent yet fleeting Raindrop–but overall the pianist seemed to merely be going through the motions.  His technique hasn’t regressed terribly, but gone is his very special ability to disarmingly draw out a graduated palette of sounds while expressing starkest emotions in lightest touches.  The ballades were vapid and not as clean as they could be, and the preludes were rushed and lacked contrast as a set.  In Mr. Li’s defense, his fans are a part of the problem.  For this particular recital, the over-enthused but under-informed audience burst into applause at a dramatic point before the final measures of Ballade No. 4, breaking any spell in what was the pianist’s best ballade of the evening.  Later in the second half of the program, it was as if Mr. Li rushed through the preludes out of nervousness that if he didn’t, the audience would clap and once more detract from his efforts.

More generally, Mr. Li’s artistic decline has dovetailed with his commercial rebranding.  With the insistence that he now be referred to as YUNDI–first name only, all caps–and an ever-growing number of crossover-type concerts on his schedule, one gets the sense that Mr. Li is struggling with an identity crisis whereby his disciplined style of artistry clashes fundamentally with the kitsch his brand is now built upon.  (Unlike a certain other Chinese pianist, whose style thrives on kitsch.)  The beautifully-interpreted encore of an early-20th century Chinese piece (Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon by Ren Guang) notwithstanding, does Mr. Li even play anything other than Chopin these days?  Maybe some Beethoven or Liszt occasionally, but what why has such a talented pianist not branched out more?  The most likely cause is complacency with his existing repertoire on the parts of both the artist and those around him, particularly his fans.  Don’t get me wrong, Chopin is enough for a lifetime–I’d know, kind of, as I have literally tried to learn some preludes and nocturnes one measure at a time–but I suspect that, just as few mathematicians can elevate an isolated field to new heights these days without forging connections to other fields, even someone with such a kindred connection to one special composer needs the perspective of other music to age well.  Certainly Mr. Li has achieved enough for a lifetime and is entitled to apply his talent to whatever makes him happy, but his current trajectory is a shame for the rest of us.
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