BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”; SCHUMANN: Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17 – Yundi, piano/ Berlin Philharmonic/ Daniel Harding – DGG 481 0710, 67:01 [Distr. by Universal] (4/22/14) ****:
Chinese piano virtuoso Yundi (Li) turns his attention to the German tradition (rec. January-February 2014) with the able assistance of the Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Daniel Harding, inscribing Beethoven’s mightiest concerto from 1809-1810 and Schumann’s homage to Beethoven from 1836, his monumental Fantasy in C Major. The result must be accorded a sonorous success, if not a completely “musical” triumph, insofar as surface patina and clear, potent articulation of the effects may have run ahead of depth of insight. Despite the technical finesse and boisterous propulsion of the collaboration, there lingers a kind of glib proficiency to the enterprise, as though power and digital dexterity were the ultimate aim in Beethoven, especially when one’s efforts are abetted by trumpets and drums.
Certainly, this performance of the Emperor Concerto has to rank among the loudest among interpretations, with Yundi’s clangorous chords and brilliant runs often rivaling the many fine Michelangeli traversals of this awesome concerto, of which Michelageli’s work with Andre Previn in Chicago (1960) well outshines all others. In the Adagio un poco mosso Yundi restrains the tempests and the cannons in order to achieve some degree of intimacy. But conductor Harding does not seem to help much in the softer-dynamics department, as though the piano and orchestra compete to produce the more “symphonic” sound. The Rondo: Allegro propels itself with an urgent mania that well exceeds my old favorite with Firkusny and Steinberg; and even that most volatile of keyboard assault artists, Rudolf Serkin, could elicit more warmth of piano tone. But if efficient execution gratifies your concept of this piece – or perhaps the context of Napoleon’s shelling the city of Vienna – then you will treasure this aggressive ride through the air.
The Schumann Fantasy, too, receives rough-and-tumble treatment from the outset. Perhaps its nervous tension in Yundi’s view contributes to its passionate ardor. We do recall that Horowitz championed this large and mercurial work for his “Historic Return,” and it may be that Yundi derives his vigorously thrusting ethos from such a light. The contrapuntal aspects of the piece, however, do not gain by such hard-edged attacks; rather, they submit Schumann to the adamantine pursuits of Busoni and Godowsky. Eusebius himself appears rushed for time in the style of a legend; so maybe the “legend” belongs to the harried White Rabbit of another sort of mythos. That Yundi can punch out syncopations has ample testimony in the second movement , but the galvanizing effect aligns the music les with the “An die ferne Geliebte” song cycle than with the Hammerklavier Sonata. Eusebius raises his head in the Etwas langsamer middle section, but even here the tenor of the keyboard sound harsh, the polyphony breathless. After the “toccata” of the second movement, we might hope to bask in the nocturnal consolations of the final movement, with its obvious kinship to the Moonlight Sonata. Yundi strikes an uneasy compromise here, having equated slowness and girth with poetry. Yundi makes tone, but it lacks subtlety, and he rarely lets his phrases breathe. Still, we have some notion, then, of Yundi’s concept of passion and romance, and some like it rough.