Yundi performs a set of Chopin’s piano preludes

He opens his cycle with brisk confidence, but limitations soon become apparent

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COMPOSERS: Frédéric Chopin
LABELS: Deutsche Grammophon
ALBUM TITLE: Chopin Preludes
WORKS: Preludes, Op. 28, Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45, Prelude in A flat, Op. posth.
PERFORMER: Yundi (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: DG 481 1910

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Chopin’s Preludes constitute a neat riposte to JS Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues through the perfect arc which they describe – following a plan of descending thirds, each major prelude is followed by one in its relative minor. They share the same opus number, yet they were composed over an eight-year span, beginning with the second (and also maybe the last) in 1831, and ending in a concerted rush during Chopin’s sojourn with George Sand in Majorca. Some of them are nocturnes, others are mazurkas, caprices, etudes, or quasi-improvisations, and each inhabits its own soundworld, but the cumulative effect is best evoked by Baudelaire’s simile of ‘a brilliant bird hovering over an abyss of horrors’. The technical challenges to the performer are outweighed by the aesthetic one – to honour the uniqueness of each piece and to reflect the coherence of the whole.

Yundi has long been associated with Chopin, and he opens his cycle with brisk confidence, but limitations soon become apparent. His playing is four-square, efficient, but terribly bland: we have to wait until No. 14 to get a hint of colouring, and only in No. 15 does he allow any real cantabile. In his hands the fast and furious numbers are just that and no more; where he should be light as gossamer he plods along; the timbral contrasts which should exist both between these pieces and within them are simply not there. As for magic, mystery, and tragedy, forget it. The leggierezza which should characterise the final bonne bouche in this collection is anything but.

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Michael Church