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CHOPIN: Four Ballades; Berceuse in D-flat Major; Four Mazurkas – Yundi Li, piano – DGG

Yundi’s Chopin recital surveys the epic, the poetic, and the intimate with grace and stylistic security.

CHOPIN: Four Ballades; Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57; Four Mazurkas, Op. 17 – Yundi Li, piano – DGG 481 2443, 56:00 (2/26/16) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Having become the first Chinese performer ever to win the prestigious Chopin Competition in 2000, Yundi Li (b. 1982) has gleaned a reputation more for poetic sensitivity than for sheer bravura and flamboyant foppishness, in the manner of Lang Lang. Yundi (at eighteen) became the youngest winner in the history of the event, and the first player in fifteen years to be granted first prize. Yundi has already recorded the Preludes as part of his ongoing Chopin Project. Yundi here (rec. December 2015) turns to the four Chopin Ballades, 1835-1843, the composer’s subjective response to the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, wherein many of the musical impulses assume a direct connection to the verse conceits of the narratives.

From the outset of the dynamic Ballade No. 1 in g minor, Op. 23, Yundi demonstrates a combination of virile strength and flexible, poetic introspection. The rubato Yundi employs enhances the lyric ebb and flow of the melodic, vocal line, and he does not overly-exaggerate a pregnant pause. The lines often extend long over the bar lines, gaining acceleration, Neapolitan harmonies, and polyphonic textures. The Presto on fuoco designation for the latter portion of the work glides rather than storms, and Yundi’s landings remain secure and dramatically resonant.  The 1839 F Major Ballade presents a sentimental siciliano that serves as a folk prelude to a drama that erupts with torrential vehemence, captured in warm gusts by recording engineer Rainer Mallard. Dedicated to Robert Schumann, the music lilts and sighs almost in the manner of a barcarolle midway through the narrative. What sets the music apart lies in the passing dissonances and modal harmonies that graduate the colors that even in their percussive or manic state, exhibit a passion entirely conceived in pianistic terms.

The 1841 A-flat Ballade allows Yundi to bask in three distinct octaves before settling into the galloping motif that hypnotically repeats notes an octave apart that, mercurially, allows a brief waltz to materialize. Passing trills, turns, and seamless runs eventually coalesce into a grand climax that Yundi seals with assertive affirmation in the major, the only time a Chopin ballade finishes so. The 1842 f minor Ballade, Op. 52 remains the most expansive and the most contrapuntally intricate. Marked Andante con moto, the first pages set a tragic tone rife with resignation. Yundi relishes the progressive harmonies, many of which adumbrate later evolution in Debussy and Roussel. Chopin invests subtle variants into the developmental pages, whose textures thicken and exploit the grand sonority of the keyboard’s chromatic runs.  By now, we each await the explosive triple forte followed, eventually, by five soft pianissimos, all just prior to the brilliant feverish coda. Both passionate and erotic, the Yundi performance will successfully rival those classic interpretations we have heard by Moravec, Rubinstein, and Horowitz.

The masterpiece of harmonic-rhythm, Chopin’s 1844 D-flat Major Berceuse, allows Yundi a salon moment of extraordinary concentration. Built on a persistent ostinato in the left hand, the lullaby lilts between a stable tonic and its dominant response. The variants glide in watery effusion while revealing a charming tune that might have been conceived for a celestial flute. Yundi’s pedal effects color the last page, although his fingers alone had made splendid hues throughout.

The set of 1833 mazurkas, Op. 17 receives from Yundi a harder, bright patina, offering us as well the opportunity to hear the oft-encored a minor, Op. 17, No. 4 in full context besides its melancholy somber beauty. The opening B-flat Major exults in its optimistic, aggressive colors, Vivo e risoluto. The succeeding e minor Lento, ma non troppo, has Yundi attentive to its subtle shifts in motion, an edgy waltz, sporting the kind of agogics that had Meyerbeer’s complaining about Chopin’s bar lines. The A-flat Major Yundi treats like an episodic tonepoem whose jagged, folkish, color contrasts can jar, explode, or melt into ripe kernels of melody. The a minor remained long a favorite of the late Ivan Moravec. The lilting portamento opens up momentarily, only to recede into dainty units, a la Satie. The sense of fading away into eternity comes upon us slowly and inexorably.

—Gary Lemco

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