The prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition, held every five years in Warsaw, is perhaps the only competition among the plethora that exist today, that ensures a sustained international performing career for its laureates. So when Yundi Li became not only the youngest pianist at age 18, but also the first and only Chinese pianist to walk away with the much-coveted First Prize in 2000 – when juries had previously declined to award First Prize in the previous two iterations of the competition – there was much excitement in the world of classical music. Since then Yundi Li has been invited to perform and record with the greatest orchestras and in the greatest concert venues throughout the world.
In this his first tour of Australia and New Zealand, Yundi – for he now goes by the single name moniker – is performing both concertos of the composer who helped establish his renown, Frédéric Chopin. On this tour however – as he has already done in the past with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra – Yundi also takes on the role of conductor, never an easy task.
The venue for the Brisbane concert that opened this tour was the Royal International Convention Centre – a venue that seats approximately 1200 patrons, all seated on a flat floor, and one that is not acoustically well suited to live classical concerts. To mitigate this, both the orchestra and piano were amplified – an unusual feature for performances of Chopin’s music – the Polish composer himself much preferred the intimacy of smaller salons for his own rare performances. And while such amplification is more akin to outdoor arena concerts and opera performances, it nevertheless meant that even patrons at the back of the auditorium could hear all of Yundi’s considerable musical detail with ease.
Also more akin to arena-like pop-concerts, the rear wall of the auditorium featured two large screens either side of the orchestra that projected alternating images of Yundi throughout the concert – either front-on looking through the piano at his face, or side-on, focused on his hands. I must admit that this is an innovation that I have always thought would sit well at your standard MSO or SSO concert, thus bringing a certain intimacy to those in the cheaper seats. Probably it would raise the ire of musical purists, much as when opera surtitles were first introduced twenty-five years ago, but who questions those now?
The orchestra on this occasion was the Brisbane Symphony Orchestra – a community orchestra peopled largely by enthusiastic and committed amateurs that has been in existence for some 28 years. Led by Concertmaster Fiona Williams they performed serviceably and while, admittedly, there were intermittent issues relating to uniformity of attack and precision of intonation they fulfilled their role in accompanying Yundi worthily. For indeed the nature of the Chopin Concertos, indeed their raison d’être, is first and foremost to showcase the piano soloist’s technical and musical wares. And that is exactly why Chopin wrote them when aged just 19 and 20 – as an entrée card to introduce himself to the musical world at large as both composer and pianist.
And what of Yundi? Starting his conducting of the opening tuttis with baton – later dispensed with once he started playing – he did indeed look comfortable in the role of chef d’orchestre. Playing from an iPad nestled inside the piano and occasionally nodding demonstratively in order to cue some instrumental entries, this was a pianist who was continually shifting his attention between his own inner-world of sublime interpretative pianism and jumping up to provide much-needed direction for the orchestra. This was slightly distracting for the audience and striking the right balance is a challenge for even the most experienced pianist-conductors. But it is a tradition that harks back to the Baroque and Classical periods and was practised throughout the early 19th century. Only with the rise of the all-powerful maestro in the late Romantic period and especially in the 20th century did the demarcation between soloist and conductor become required standard practice. Occasionally musicians such as Bernstein, Barenboim and locally our own Richard Tognetti have sought to break down these restrictive specializations. And so it was good to see Yundi trying his hand at conducting, for the expressivity and suppleness of his hand gestures suggested that he was no mere ego-maniacal neophyte.
As for his piano playing Yundi, perhaps necessarily due to his conducting responsibilities and having to work with a community orchestra, played with less artistic freedom, less rubato than he might usually enjoy. And one sensed his pedaling – perhaps to accommodate the proximity of the microphones as well as to delineate clearly both metre and pulse to his orchestra – was less generous, less colouristic than usual. But be in no doubt, this was Chopin playing of the first order, for Yundi was in top form. The two nocturne-like slow movements in particular – perhaps due to the sparseness of the orchestration – revealed a lyricism and spontaneity of expression that, notwithstanding the amplification, took one’s breath away. And the outer movements of the E minor concerto revealed not only a formidable technique, but also a sensibility for musical detail, all the while maintaining a command of both localized line and overall architecture.
Yundi Li is most definitely a pianist worth hearing live especially in his preferred domain of Chopin. Perhaps relieved of conducting responsibilities and with a more finely-honed professional orchestra might be ideal, but for now, it is definitely worth the effort to hear his distinctively affective brand of Chopinism. We can never be too sure when he shall return to our shores again.
Glenn Riddle attended Yundi Li’s concert at the Brisbane Royal International Convention Centre, October 28, 2018
Yundi Li will perform Chopin’s Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2 in Melbourne at the Palais Theatre on November 3, and at the Sydney Opera House on November 5 and 6.