"YUNDI is back". Some rock stars every now and then accomplish a comeback. So can classical pianists it seems. For the 30-year-old Chinese superstar Yundi Li the comeback might refer to a couple of things. First of all, a return to his first label, but also, one hopes, a return to his initial form and inspiration. This new Beethoven disc aims at both. Deutsche Grammophon was the label that originally signed him after his grand victory at the XIVth Chopin International Piano Competition in 2000 as a mere 18-year-old. Yet the road to massive international success, the rivalry with his flamboyant compatriot Lang Lang, also brought its setbacks and disappointments. From 2010 Yundi Li spent a couple of years with EMI Classics. He would henceforth go by the name of Yundi, yet the scheduled complete Chopin recordings never really took flight and he eventually retreated to China. But now he is back touring again, back with the yellow label and there is no way to miss it. DG publicity and the liner notes of the new CD spell his first name only in capital fonts, and of course YUNDI dwarfs little Beethoven on the cover of the disc.
Not to make things easy, Yundi Li selected three of Beethoven's most popular and recorded sonatas – the "Pathétique", the "Moonlight" and the "Appassionata". Although in the liner notes the pianist characterizes the trio repeatedly as utterly Romantic pieces ("I want to show Beethoven's Romantic philosophy combined with Chinese philosophy"), they don't sound like that in his hands. Instead he plays them in a classical manner, looking back to the past rather than towards things to come – sober, precise, with an admirable clarity of articulation, textures and rhythms. Nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach of course, however what seems missing is dramatic weight and he finds little distinction between the three sonatas. They could have been written one after the other, rather than in a time span of six or seven years.
The speed of the outer movements of the "Pathétique" is hardly compensated by any gravitas and the sonata ends up sounding rather lightweight indeed. Yundi's technical mastery shines through his handling of the Adagio sostenuto of the C Sharp minor sonata. No doubt, this is magnificent piano especially when taken at such a slow tempo, but the refusal to break free from the rigid phrasing eventually turns into blandness. The Presto Agitato is taken presto to be sure, relentlessly so, but the lack of dynamic contrast between the hands robs the movement of its true impact. A far too objective approach also underexposes the "Appassionata". Everything is tastefully done, with an emphasis on clarity and smoothness – but anyone familiar with the renderings of Rudolf Serkin, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter or Wilhelm Kempff will long for more than Yundi Li is able to give.
In short, this CD may be more important to Yundi Li as a confidence booster than it will shake up our discography of Beethoven sonatas. Not that this will worry the "Prince of the Piano" or his fans much though. At the time of writing, the disc already gained platinum status in China.
Copyright © 2013, Marc Haegeman