WORKS: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58; Andante spianato & Grande polonaise brillante; Études, Op. 10/2 & 5, & Op. 25/11; Fantasie impromptu, Op. 66; Nocturnes Op. 9/1 & 2, & Op. 15/2
PERFORMER: Yundi Li (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 471 479-2
Yundi Li won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in October 2000. It was the first time in 15 years that the competition had awarded a first prize, so expectations inevitably run high for this 20-year-old Chinese pianist whom DG has snapped up.
The start of the B minor Sonata bodes well: an authoritative, magisterial opening and a magical transition with the duet singing and eloquent over an atmospheric, chromatic left hand. Li’s tone
quality is beautiful, both at pianissimo and fortissimo levels; technically the entire disc is impeccable. Yet the beauty ultimately feels skin-deep. Individual moments are superb, but beside Kissin’s recording of the sonata, its deficiencies become clear. Kissin offers a grand-scale personal vision that encompasses the totality of the work and fuses his artistry indivisibly with the composer’s. By contrast, Li’s recording does not seem to add up to more than the sum of its parts.
The Études that follow sound, while unerringly accurate, depressingly étude-like; the Nocturnes are marred by the way Li plays the right-hand note just a fraction after the left – fine if done with imagination, variety and discrimination, but here repetitive to the point of mannerism. For the Andante spianato and Grande polonaise, there’s a telling comparison with Krystian Zimerman’s first recording, fresh out of the 1975 Chopin Competition. Li’s tone in the Andante is gorgeous, pure and sensitive, but the Polonaise fails to take wing, settling instead on the solid and correct. Zimerman’s flair, elegance and panache is in another class altogether. In short, Li is vastly accomplished; but maybe he needs time to find himself. Jessica Duchen