March 2005

Chopin - Scherzi / Impromtus
Yundi Li, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 474 516-2
Format: CD
Released: 2005

by Bill Brooks

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

"Look at these trees!" Liszt told one of his pupils. "The wind plays in the leaves, stirs up life among them, [but] the tree remains the same. That is Chopinesque rubato." One cannot begin a discussion or review of Chopin without mentioning his characteristic use of tempo rubato. In Chopin’s words, "The left hand is the conductor; it must not waver or lose ground; do with the right hand what you will and can." When I really get lost in Chopin, I am sometimes reminded of some of the great jazz improvisations I have heard. At its best, this loosening and tightening of tempo can give Chopin’s music the emotional impact that the composer intended. However, if the performer is not technically up to the task or lacks the proper finesse, Chopin’s music can come off sounding like so much romantic mush.

This latest Chopin recording by 22-year-old Chinese prodigy Yundi Li is a welcome addition to any serious admirer of the composer’s work. Li comes with good references, having won the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 2000 at the age of 18. Former winners of this competition include Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich.

Chopin readings generally fall into two camps: romantic, poetically charged performances such as those recorded by Rubinstein, and the more technical, emotionally detached versions like those by Pollini and Argerich. Li definitely leans in the direction of the second camp, although I still found the performances quite emotionally involved. He has a light touch and lightning-quick movements that are very compelling. This is most evident in the scherzi, which really show off Li’s virtuoso finger work. The sudden accelerations toward the end of Scherzo No. 3 will have you fastening your seatbelt. The impromptus display more of Li’s emotion, but still lack the depth of Rubinstein. But remember, Li is only 22 years old.

Piano recordings seem to go all over the place. Some recordings have the listener sitting on the soundboard, while others have him sitting in the closet wearing earmuffs. This DG recording is a pleasant balance, with just enough immediacy to catch all of Li’s nuanced fingerings, yet far enough removed to make a listener feel as if he or she is listening to a piano, not from inside one.

A real winner from a young man with a very bright future.