Chopin: Scherzo No. 1; Scherzo No. 2; Scherzo No. 3; Scherzo No. 4; Impromptus, Op. 29, 36 & 51

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: Scherzo No. 1; Scherzo No. 2; Scherzo No. 3; Scherzo No. 4; Impromptus, Op. 29, 36 & 51
PERFORMER: Yundi Li (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 474 8782
Yundi Li walked off with top prize at the 2000 Warsaw International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and it’s not hard to see why the jury was so impressed by the then 18-year-old Chinese pianist. His playing, with its sparing use of the sustaining pedal, has a remarkable clarity and lightness of touch; and those qualities suit the smaller-scale and more intimate side of Chopin, such as the impromptus, very well. But the scherzos are another matter. With the exception of the quicksilver last of them, in E major, they’re much darker and more dramatic than their generic title would suggest, and for all the beauty of tone Yundi Li finds in such moments as the floating D flat major second theme of Op. 36, they sound at times rather lightweight and under-characterised in his hands. The opening bars of the Third Scherzo, for instance, need to generate more of a feeling of mystery and anticipation, and its chorale-like theme in the major seems to call for a more sonorous approach. But there’s still a great deal to admire in Yundi Li’s playing, not least the spectacular quality of the pianism itself. Among rival versions of the scherzos, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 1967 recording still stands up very well, conveying a sense of spontaneity and depth that Yundi Li never quite manages to match. However, Decca’s recording is beginning to show its age, and it certainly can’t stand comparison with the demonstration-quality sound on this new DG disc. Misha Donat