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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Concert Review: Capitalizing on his Success

YUNDI plays Chopin at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist YUNDI in action.
Photo © 2014 EMI Classics.
The pianist YUNDI is a bona fide sensation, spreading the gospel of Chopin's music to appreciative audiences around the globe. (He is now referred to on posters and in program notes as YUNDI (sic) with each letter having equal importance to the others, recalling the time one Homer Simpson changed his legal name to MAX POWER.) On Wednesday night, Yundi (we're not going to capitalize his name each time, just use your imagination or download the post and edit it yourself) played an all-Chopin recital at Carnegie Hall, surveying that composer's complete Ballades and Preludes. This formidable pairing drew from his two recent recordings on DG. It is music that requires great versatility and skill on the part of the artist.

Born Yundi Li, this artist drew the attention of the music world in 2000, winning the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw at the age of 18. He made his Carnegie Hall debut three years later. A native of Chonqing, he quickly became a sensation in his own country, making Western music cool again with large Chinese audiences. Now 33, he belongs to the same generation as Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, pianists with prodigious techniques and flashy styles that sometimes offer showmanship at the expense of emotional truth.

On Wednesday evening, Stern Auditorium was lit with a dim, religious atmosphere more suited to Evensong than an evening of 19th century romantic music. With cameras set up to film the concert for streaming in China, Yundi took the hallowed Perelman Stage, strolling confidently to the black Steinway that loomed under the lights. The house-lights were lowered even further, achieving a gloom for contemplation of the artist  as he opened the two-part program, each consisting of cycles of works that have deep pitfalls for any unwary pianist.

Playing from memory,  the pianist drifted gently into the recitative-like melody that launches Ballade No. 1. He tossed his shoulders back, gazing in Liszt-like rapture as the tempo increased, shooting off  firework rhythms and trills with his right hand and supporting the themes with dark mutterings from his right. His playing had liquid grace and ease in the early passages, adding rhythmic rigor as the work progressed and building the whole to a prodigious climax that drew a wave of applause from the sold-out house.

This formula was followed for the remaining three Ballades. Each built on what came before, creating an exponential increase in style and glittering technique.  The audience kept up its applause, even forcing Yundi to finally hold up an admonishing finger so that he might control the momentum from Ballade No. 3 directly into the finger-busting heroics of Ballade No. 4. But the house was irrepressible, clapping even during the long rest that comes before the fiery coda of the fourth Ballade and reacting wildly after the artist pounded the last chords home.

The Op. 28 Preludes are a very different set of pianistic challenges. This is a cycle of 24 miniatures, organized in rising fifths and alternating between major and minor keys. The cycle includes leaping Presto movements, dour funeral marches and most famously, the "Raindrop" Prelude, a work that has moved from the concert hall to the realm of commercial cliche. It forces the artist to become master of the miniature, making Chopin's concise statements have maximum impact.

Yundi defeated his applause-happy followers by linking each Prelude to the next in a chain that did not give them a chance to clap in between movements. The artist brought a vague sense of mourning to the doleful Lento funeral march (No. 2.) He infused the "Raindrop" with a proper dollop of sentimentality, acknowledging its fame with a regular but slow tempo that drew out the drama and the beauty of this famous melody. At the close of the 24th and final Prelude, he crossed over and hit the bass key of the piano with his right hand, a showy move that finally signaled his fans it was time to applaud. Following this, he obliged with a short pentatonic encore: "Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon" by the composer Ren Guang. 

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