Yundi Li is the winner of several competitions, not the least of which are the Gina Bachauer and 2000 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland. I believe he has foresworn all further competitions. Many of Mr. Li’s auditors will have made comparisons between him and Vladimir Horowitz, for the brilliance of tone and technique and the similarity in their chosen repertory. Except that Horowitz, for all of his love for Schumann and Liszt, never inscribed Carnaval or the Spanish Rhapsody. In his recital from June 2005, Li sports an extremely light, clear touch, perhaps more reminiscent of Murray Perahia than Horowitz, so both Scarlatti’s double trills and Mozart’s galanteries assume a jeweled, perfumed flavor. The Mozart enjoys a pearly lucidity, but not at the expense of its forward motion, the transfiguration of its Alberti bass and seemingly simple procedures by which the magic carpet flies. The second movement Andante cantabile is disarmingly exposed, its plaints alternating the tension between major and minor tonalities. The last movement’s similarity to a Scarlatti sonata is no mere coincidence.
The clarion that opens Schumann’s Carnaval seems only a step away from Moussorgsky’s Great Gate of Kiev, then Li is off to the races through the character-pieces Schumann fashioned as “little scenes on four notes.” Pierrot struts across the stage, almost a dirge. Arlequin whirls. The Valse noble is marvelously wrought, a real Viennese bon-bon filled with creamed tracery. Inwardness and pomposity alternate throughout for the better part of 30 minutes. The Butterflies rarely have fluttered so quickly. Chiarina sounds as much a passionate Chopin waltz as the portrait of the Polish master himself. The last note of Valse allemande ushers in the fierce violin artistry of the demonic Paganini, a real presto passionato. Eusebius earns his points, too, as Li’s delicate touch and elegant ppp dynamic forces us to attend to Schumann’s filigree with the same care we give Webern. The Promenade drips with schwung, Viennese lilt. The so-called Pause is a firecracker that sets off the heroic March of the David-Leaguers in furious tilt.
Liszt’s 1858 setting of La Folia and the Spanish jota was a favorite of Gina Bachauer, who liked to play the Busoni arrangement. One of the more modern masters of this piece was Lazar Berman, who brought a feverish energy to its romantic rhetoric. Li wants to finesse the piece, savoring its stretti and knotty modulations and non-legato filigree. Not that Li cannot deliver the warranted explosion: at several moments, I pondered the color relation between the Spanish Rhapsody and Stravinsky’s 3 Scenes from Petrushka. When Li finally unleashes his full arsenal of crescendo and fff, the results are quite staggering – a wild ride, as Liszt put it. A must CD for Yundi Li fans!