CHOPIN: Preludes, Op. 28; Prelude in c-sharp minor, Op. 45; Prelude in A-flat Major, op. posth. – Yundi, piano – DGG 481 1910, 38:58 (9/25/15) [Distr. By Universal] ***

Many would argue that pianist Yundi Li (b. 1982) ranks as a musician of note, as opposed to his flamboyant, often vacuous contemporary Lang Lang, whose career has catapulted into a media circus. Yundi brings a sensitivity – and speed – to the 1839 Preludes that often manages a fine and subtle measure of poetry.  My own ears first perked up at the D Major, whose knotty metrics ring with dramatic authority.  The B Minor often earns the epithet “raindrop” as much as the more familiar D-flat Major. Yundi imbues the A Major with a hint of a mazurka prior to the onrush of the f-sharp minor’s polyphonic tumult.  The E Major Yundi performs more for beauty of tone and bass harmony than for its tragic inferences.  The sheer, brisk gesture of the c-sharp minor segues fluently into the B Major, and then on to the muscular, wild dance in g-sharp minor, which perhaps too much resembles an etude.

Fine-tuned pedal marks the F-sharp Major, a haunted moment of liquid beauty in Chopin.  The e-flat minor plays like a bit of grand guignol, more akin to a morbid gesture from Liszt. The D-flat Major sails on gentle bell tones, at least until its fateful middle section. For blazing virtuosity, the b-flat minor has all the relentless virtues of an old-world performance by Cortot or Backhaus. The most enigmatic of them all, the A-flat Major, Yundi takes too fast for my taste, but its elusive beauty assumes a passionate despair.  A bit pesant to my taste, the f minor breathes dramatic fire, and the last bar from Yundi warrants re-hearing. The E-flat Major continues to resonate for me in the manner of Schumann, with its sturdy melodic line that sings above a swirl of supporting tissue and then allows agogics to disperse its song blissfully.  Graduated dynamics mark the c minor for our reconsideration, a condensed moment of reflective solitude. Cantabile, the B-flat Major shimmers in pre-Debussy washes of color.  A g minor storm or orage beckons Byron to describe it, and then cascades in blissful figures in F Major.  As much a “fate” motif as anything in Beethoven, the punishing ostinati of the d minor Prelude announce a descent in to the maelstrom worthy of Poe, and even more of Dante. If MGM decides to replace the soundtrack for The Picture of Dorian Gray with a new performance, they might try this one.

The c-sharp minor Prelude of 1841 has, in my ken, a great performance from Michelangeli; but Yundi’s silver color proves poetic and distinctive, the phrases lilted, if a bit heavy in the bass.  The 1834 A-flat Major Prelude (published in 1918) balances waltz and mazurka impulses in dexterous color.

Fine playing all, but certainly brief – has DGG reverted to LP length to pique our interest?

—Gary Lemco