Yundi's Chopin is a cultural and musical phenomenon

By Truman C. Wang
Thursday, February 25, 2016

Yundi, piano
CHOPIN: Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
CHOPIN: Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38
CHOPIN: Ballade No. 3 in A flat Major, Op. 47
CHOPIN: Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52
CHOPIN: 24 Preludes, Op. 28
Sunday, February 21, 2016. Walt Disney Concert Hall

The 33-year-old Chinese superstar pianist Li Yundi is on a Herculean 50-city world tour to promote his new CD’s of Chopin’s Ballades and Preludes.   Last Sunday evening, he stopped in Los Angeles for his only U.S. recital before moving on to Germany and Austria.  The adoring fans who packed the Walt Disney Concert Hall could be divided into two camps – those who loved Chopin and Yundi, and those who loved Yundi but knew preciously little of Chopin’s music.   As is typical of such celebrity-driven events, the audience behavior followed not the rational pattern of an informed music lover, but the feverish anticipation of a superfan ready to clap at the slightest encouragement.  Fortunately, being a consummate artist, Yundi showed an unflappable determination not to be undermined by either untimely applauses or bronchial afflictions. 

In the four Ballades that made up the first half of the program, Yundi demonstrated his natural affinity for Chopin's music.  In Ballade No. 1, the gentle, sweet cantilenas were articulated affectionately without being sentimental, while the dramatic conclusion, marked Presto con fuoco, was an explosive firestorm with a thrilling double-octave scale run down the keyboard.  Ballades No. 2 and 3 were also exemplary in their poetic expressions and tour-de-force virtuosic execution.  Best of all, the epic Ballade No. 4, with no less than three themes in a complicated contrapuntal texture, showed Yundi’s formidable power of articulation in his left hand when, just before the final coda (and the first untimely applause), the left-hand running bass slowly built up the lyrical momentum in the right hand into a shattering climax.  There were many flubs and wrong notes early on mainly in Ballade No. 1.  Vladimir Horowitz, whom Harold Schoenberg called “the greatest pianist who ever lived”, once said playing wrong notes made him more human and closer to the composers.  Yundi’s wrong notes in a way reflected Chopin’s sickly, fragile body as well as his strangely delicate yet powerful music.

After the intermission, there were no more mistakes.  Yundi gave an absolutely note-perfect reading of all 24 Preludes that are rarely, if ever, performed together as a single set.  The only thing that might have raised eyebrows was his playing many of them without a pause, a decision that made musical sense (each major piece is followed immediately by its relative minor) as well as strategic sense (preventing unwanted applause).  As a collection of miniature piano pieces, the 24 Preludes are a treasure trove of riches and Yundi reveled in their exploration, traversing through them with rich tone colors, wonderful phrasing, meticulous details, and clarity of playing to display the full canvass of emotions that Chopin no doubt felt while writing them during his unlucky trip to Majorca.  As with the Ballades, Yundi avoided overt sentimentality in the lyrical pieces (Nos. 4, 6, 15 “Raindrop”, 17, 21 “Cantabile”) and attacked the virtuosic pieces (Nos. 8, 12, 16 “Presto con fuoco”, 18, 19, 24 “Appassionato”) with glittering cascades of notes and clear, transparent voicing of lines.

The sounds of Yundi’s Steinway piano were unusually rich and luxuriant, definitely not a ‘house piano’ that I was used to hearing in this hall.

One encore, Guang’s “Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon” in a scintillating, Chopinesque reading, then the superstar pianist was off to the lobby for CD signings and greeting a seemingly endless line of superfans.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.