Pianist Yundi Li sent chills and thrills through the small crowd Sunday evening at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. His playing was almost everything that had been anticipated from a pianist who has gained in recent years an almost superstardom — at least in China.
There is no question Li is a marvelous pianist. The clarity and electric brilliance of his technique is phenomenal. His energy ranged from ferocity to a tranquil introspection. And, when he was inspired, his musical phrasing brought sighs of pleasure. But on this recital, he took almost 50 percent of the first half before the poetry and fantasy that conductor Seiji Ozawa raves about surfaced.
Li began with Mozart’s Sonata No. 10 in C Major. Although his pacing, pedaling, phrasing and dynamic ranges were good, he didn’t stroke the keys as much as strike them to produce a tone that was assertive and snappy. His mood was jaunty, though, and amazingly, he electrified with some brilliant technical passages in the final fast movement. Who would have thought Mozart could project like that?
In four of Chopin’s Mazurkas from his Op. 33, his tone had a hard edge, but his pacing, technical cleanness, emphasis of the inner voices and pedaling were superior. There was no sentimentality, only a very direct, purposeful approach. Sometimes a sudden taut loud passage would erupt and Li showed he could be bold and fiery.
Chopin’s famous Nocturne in E-flat Major, known to every pupil who’s played Chopin, was interesting in his softer tone, blurred images and introspective mood. Rather than knock out the final page as most pianists do, Li spun out the notes with a fluid nonchalance but kept the dynamic within the pensive range. It was a rather lovely choice.
Here comes the sun
Then, in Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s rippling and romantic “Widmung” from “Myrthen,” the sun came out, Li’s heart opened up, and his playing flowed wondrously in grand, expansive gestures. Chopin’s Andante Spianato and the famous Grande Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major were also marvelous. His tone sang, he stroked the keys with tenderness and colorful nuances, his phrasings had delicacy and fire. The many notes flew by effortlessly.
Li played a masterful “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky. His broad range of dynamics, his intensity, vigor, vitality and pacing were fabulous and magical. Yet his technique and rhythms remained clear as water.
The audience leaped to its feet and got an encore: a traditional Chinese melody called “Sunflowers” that was sweetly lyrical and bubbly.