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George Li Live = HAYDN: Piano Sonata in B Minor; CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2; RACHMANINOV: Variations on a Theme of Corelli; LISZT: Consolation No. 3, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 – George Li – Warner Classics 

George Li Live at the Mariinsky = HAYDN: Piano Sonata in B Minor, Hob.XVI:32; CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor, Op. 35; RACHMANINOV: Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42; LISZT: Consolation No. 3 in D-flat Major; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in c-sharp minor – George Li – Warner Classics 0190295812942  68:56 (10/6/17) ****:

George LI raises sparks and a silver sheen at the Mariinsky Theatre in 2016. 

George Li (b. 1995), silver medalist of the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, offers a recital (4-5 October 2016) from St. Petersburg that testifies to the range of colors in his digital arsenal. Li opens with the 1776 Sonata in b minor of Haydn, a curious mix of sturm und drang and Scarlatti at once. The quick staccatos of the Allegro moderato find consolation in D Major, punctuated by broken runs and pert accents. The upper registers enjoy a light color offset by a kind of cello or bassoon figure in the bass, which descends dramatically. The contest between major and minor continues into the succeeding Menuetto, which opens in B Major but whose trio becomes agitated in the tonic minor. The Finale: Presto moves in nervous, quicksilver periods, rife with repeated notes and pregnant pauses that would not have escaped Beethoven’s notice.  Syncopes and counterpoint vie for our attention amongst the fleet runs that dance along with the repeated notes.

Li approaches the 1837-39 b-flat minor Sonata of Chopin in the same spirit of emotional tension and confrontation.  Common parlance argues that Chopin conceived the famous Funeral March first in 1838 and then built the other movements around it. Li attacks the opening Grave – Doppio movimento with a rush of emotion that includes taking the repeat in one gulp. The tidal pulse of the progression soon achieves an “oceanic” power that may remind some of the Horowitz reading. When Li pulls back on the reins, the music breathes a titan’s lyric ardor that soon explodes into passionate convulsions at the gallop. The acerbic octaves and doubled notes of the e-flat minor Scherzo only seem to inflame Li, who then relents for the major key trio. The underlying trill has a suave color, and Chopin’s counterpoint lilts in nostalgic musing.   Li’s runs project a clean, fluid line, the patina hard yet lustrous.

Much of the color Li projects in the opening pages of the Funeral March glow with the same resonance we hear in Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Li builds the line as an inexorable pageant, whose mighty trill comments on the implacability of Fate. The contrasting lyric section achieves the tender simplicity of one’s first love affair or one’s first lullaby. The Funeral March rudely interrupts the idyll, its bell tones insistent, with no need to clamor their fell purpose. Li controls the rising dynamic with a slight ritard in the rhythm, the rubato’s merely accenting the shock of the somber crescendo. The last movement, Finale: Presto defies emotional equivalence, with parallel octaves in constant, frenetic motion, a kind of whirlpool or dark eddy whose last chord has the curtain of Fate down pitilessly.

Rachmaninov’s La Folia Variations (1931) after Corelli testify to the composer’s versatility and broad culture. Essentially in d minor and “wandering” into D-flat, the variants often maintain the contour of the original theme, but they also assume declamatory and chromatic adjustments that play with the same polyphonic menace as his etudes-tableaux. The eighth variant hearkens to Mussorgsky as much as any moment in Rachmaninov. Arpeggios and cadenza-like passages presage the composer’s most famous set of variations, those after Paganini. Variation XV, L’istesso tempo, bears a lyric charm all its own, almost a barcarolle. The last four variants form a kind of poetic quatrain in d minor, almost a postscript to Chopin’s prelude in the same key. The Variations XVIII- XIX rival Liszt’s Wild Hunt Etude for power and surging energy. The Coda: Andante combines Russian nostalgia with contrapuntal Chopin, chromatically recollecting the La Folia in the form of a melancholy sarabande.

George Li may wish to be recalled—via his Liszt—in the same breath as Jorge Bolet, given the tenderness of his Lento placido Consolation No. 3 in D-flat (1850).  The watery curves of the melodic line sing over an accompaniment straight out of Chopin’s D-flat Nocturne, Op. 27, No. 2. The repeated notes in thirds at the last achieve a delicate series of bell tones, aerial and evanescent. Li finishes with the race horse par excellence in Liszt: the mighty czardas and cimbalom effects of the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1847). Here, aficionados will wave their Gyorgy Cziffra wand at Li, perhaps hoping Li will disappear. Whimsical, somber, bravura, elated, and boldly rapturous, the piece brings forth a panoply of colors from Li, many of which prove mesmeric, especially his own improvisation on the Liszt declamations. Fingers and personality inundate the occasion, and I think we might take our hats off.

Piano sound brilliant, the effects owe their colossal resonance to Fedor Naumov

—Gary Lemco

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