Yundi, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

With Lang Lang hogging the limelight, there’s not much space for other young Chinese pianists to get noticed at present, yet Lang Lang’s coeval Yundi Li shadows him as constantly as the moon shadows the sun.

Gracefully reserved where Lang Lang is punchily ebullient, Yundi Li made his international mark just as early, winning the Warsaw Chopin competition at 18 and thereafter being dubbed in China ‘Prince of the Piano’. The pair never meet, and are championed by different labels: Lang Lang by Deutsche Grammophon, while Yundi Li - formerly brandished by that company in exactly the same way - is now making his debut as a star for EMI, who have given him the Nigel Kennedy treatment, catchily reducing his name to Yundi. His new Cd of Chopin’s Nocturnes is just out, and his South Bank concert was designed - as such events so often are - to promote it. Relatively unknown though he is, he got a capacity audience, consisting largely of Chinese.

He delivered his opening series of Nocturnes with a sweetly confiding tone: two early ones unfolded with leisurely assurance, Opus 15 No 2 emerged in lovingly-honed diaphanous detail, and Opus 27 No 2 with dreamy grace. If the big-boned ‘Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante’ was the first real test, he passed, even if his edifice seemed periodically wreathed in mist; his decorous playing was very expressive. After four somewhat uninspired Mazurkas he came to the sonata famously described by Schumann as ‘four of Chopin’s wildest children yoked together’. Sonata No 2 is a hurdle at which the greatest pianists can fall.

From the opening bars, Yundi seemed uneasy: the music felt rushed, with the detail which should have been crystalline dissipated in a blur; there was none of the authority this work demands to have stamped on every bar. As for the architecture, that old phrase ‘one damn thing after another’ came constantly to mind. The funeral march had no trace of towering finality, and the ‘wind over the graves’ finale was nimble but characterless. After his first encore - an unusually wishy-washy piece by Liszt - he played an archetypal Chinese ditty which sent the ovating sections of the audience into ecstasies. A strange and rather sad occasion: Yundi is a serious young artist, but seems at risk of drowning in his own overblown publicity.

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