Date: May 15, 2010
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.
The Chopin interpreter is an abstract denotation, but Li never shied away from staking his claim on it. His series of Nocturnes, Opp. 9-1, 9-2, 15-2, 27-2 and 48-1 was measured, controlled and expressive. If an immense amount of dexterity was involved, Li did not show it – as if there was no instrument, only an audio output. In Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22, Li offered to expose the two brilliant aspects of Chopin’s body of works by brokering and deftly connecting the first part’s calming serenity with the second part’s fearless intensity.
After a brief intermission and a quick march through a mid-series set of Mazurkas (Op. 33), he moved onto the centerpiece of the evening, Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. In the first movement, his playing style was paraded: skilled but never overtly athletic, in control and never volatile. Li’s rendition of the third movement of Sonata No. 2 op. 35 spoke volumes: the funeral march theme was somber and ponderous, while the Lento interlude was meticulous in its tempi and careful in its phrasing. Li’s touching of the keys was magical: this, being one of my favorite sonatas, was one of the most majestic renditions I have ever heard, easily on par with and quite possibly surpassing the Rubenstein’s, Gilel’s, Zimerman’s, and Kissin’s I grew up to love and adore. Anchoring the programme was Polonaise, Op. 53, where Li’s early attack was a little sloppy, but he quickly recovered to dance to a jubilant finish.
His Mazurka exhibited a level of explicit staccato mannerism that has not previously appeared in any of his recordings, but I can’t be sure whether it was Li’s emerging style or just a fleeting moment of liberty. As encore pieces, he played a melancholic Chinese revolutionary song styled in French impressionism, and then Chopin’s Etude in C minor Op. 10-12. After rounds of rapturous applauses, the audience seemed disappointed that Li chose not to come back for a third encore, though it seemed clear to me that, by that moment, Li’s mental energy seemed drained, most probably through the intensity of the Sonata.
In my opinion, unlike many Chopin interpreters, Li Yundi’s brilliance rests not merely with a white-hot intensity and dazzling virtuosity, but with his sincere deference to the composition. The pounding of keys is merely secondary to an output of tonal richness and sweet phrasing. No amount of words would justify my impression of Li Yundi. Regardless, it would be safe to say that after a night of intense, indefatigable hip hop, Li’s music served as a luxurious, mind-soothing calmative.