The pianist formerly known as Yundi Li may be a folk-hero back home, but the merry-go-round of Western fashion has not treated him kindly.
Dislodged from his perch as Deutsche Grammophon’s prize Chinese Chopinist by the imperious Lang Lang, Li was eventually picked up by EMI and re-launched as "Yundi", thus becoming their prize Chinese Chopinist. But the re-launch didn’t work, so he gave up and went back to China. Then Lang Lang got seduced by Sony: DG has now taken Yundi back and re-re-launched him, but this time as a Beethovenist. Since this Southbank recital was designed to promote his new Beethoven Cd, it followed the same programme with the three most popular sonatas: the "Pathetique", the "Moonlight", and the "Appassionata".
If this Cd’s assured artistry suggests that Beethoven may be more Yundi’s thing than Chopin, the insipid account of the two Chopin Nocturnes he gave as an hors d’oeuvre rammed the point home. And he really does know how to play Beethoven. Apart from some crudely melodramatic gestures in the recitative of the "Pathetique", he maintained a cleanly assured line throughout all three sonatas, with brilliant passage-work and bags of power when it was needed. The thunderous first movement of the "Appassionata" was finely controlled, the Adagio of the ‘Pathetique’ sang, there was a bloom on his sound in the Allegretto of the "Moonlight", and the finale of that sonata was delivered with electrifying force. After the encore - a rippling piece of Chinoiserie – the predominantly Chinese audience erupted in delight, but there was no Lang Lang-style vulgarity in his response.
Yet while Yundi is a mere fledgling, and Murray Perahia a mature master, the latter’s Barbican recital was a much less satisfying event. Beethoven’s ‘Les adieux’ came devoid of its inherent poise and nobility, with its magical introduction delivered in a hard, unyielding tone, and the first movement radiating a driven unease.
The silky precision we normally associate with this pianist surfaced only in the Haydn sonata and the Bach French Suite with which he opened: everything else was forced into a mode which didn’t suit it. Schubert’s rapid Moments musicaux were rushed and smudged, and his gentle ones didn’t sing; Chopin’s second Scherzo was scrambled and splashy; the Chopin, Brahms, and Schubert encores were joylessly despatched. Has Perahia temporarily lost sight of a guiding principle? If you can’t find the poetry, don’t play the piece.