THE RED PIANO • Yundi (pn); Chen Zuohuang, cond;1 China NCP Concert Hall O1 • EMI 88658 (62:11)
1Piano Concerto, “The Yellow River.” In That Place Wholly Faraway. Glowing Red Morningstar Lilies. Pi Huang (Peking Opera). Remote Shangri-La. Liu Yang River. Kangding Love Song. Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon. 5 Yunnan Folk Songs.Read more class="ARIAL12bi"> Celebrating Our New Life. Why Are the Flowers So Red? My Motherland
The pianist previously known as Yundi Li apparently is now known simply as “Yundi.” (That would be his first name, not his family name.) I find that a little precious, but whatever. A 2008 article by Benjamin Ivry in the Wall Street Journal compared Yundi favorably to Lang Lang, although Ivry criticized Yundi Li for a Carnegie Hall appearance earlier that year in which he, among other things, played “Chinese folkloric kitsch of the kind that Mr. Lang churns out irrepressibly.” That article was spurred by Yundi Li’s recent parting of ways with Deutsche Grammophon; Ivry, by way of Norman Lebrecht, seemed to be suggesting that there was conflict between the image that the label was trying to create for the pianist, and the pianist’s integrity as a classical musician.
Well, I wonder what Ivry and Lebrecht think about Yundi Li’s evolution into Yundi, and the appearance of The Red Piano. The CD opens with a work that might be called the quintessence of kitsch. “The Yellow River” Piano Concerto answers the question, “What kind of piano concerto would Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff have written had they lived in China during the Cultural Revolution?” It is based on a work by Xian Xinghai from 1939 called The Yellow River Cantata, and, at the suggestion of Madame Mao (who liked the piano), was crafted into a four-movement piano concerto by a committee of composers exactly 30 years later. I must admit that I burst into delighted laughter several times as I reacquainted myself with this work, although I don’t think that is the reaction that was intended by the committee. I think it is impossible for Western ears to hear this concerto as it was intended to be heard. Lang Lang, wouldn’t you just know, recorded it several years ago for Deutsche Grammophon, and I reviewed that disc (Dragon Songs) in Fanfare 30:5. I liked Lang Lang’s performance, and my reaction to the concerto (“outrageous and naïve, yet endearing”) is about the same now, so it is good to know that I am consistent. Yundi’s rendition is no less awe-inspiring in terms of technique, and between the two pianists it is hard to decide which one is trying harder to make the concerto into a romantic showpiece to end all romantic showpieces. I think Yundi brings a greater emotional range to concerto, however. His tender moments—not that there are many of them in this emphatic work!—are more melting than Lang Lang’s. The orchestra and the conductor on this new recording also are mellower.
Lang Lang’s disc follows the concerto with a selection of smaller folkloric works, either unaccompanied or in which the pianist is joined by traditional instruments. The Red Piano takes a similar tack, although it dispenses with the traditional instruments. There are arrangements of folk songs, works in folk style arranged for piano, and even some music composed for this CD. (The booklet notes do not make it easy to determine which works fit into the last category.) Nothing is duplicated from Dragon Songs, although there is one duplication from Tianshu Wang’s The Piano in China disc, which I reviewed two issues back. That would be Zhang Zhao’s Pi Huang, an evocation of an evening at the Peking/Beijing Opera. There is not a lot of difference between the two pianists here. Yundi’s playing is a little more romanticized, and his sound is richer, although I think that has more to do with EMI’s engineering than with his technique. (According to the booklet note, Zhang Zhao dedicated this work “to my favorite pianist Yundi.”) I think it would be a little harsh to refer to the solo works on this CD as “Chinese folkloric kitsch,” although I admit my conversation with Wang, included in that same issue, helped me to understand why Chinese classical music usually is pictorial rather than abstract. One could argue that François Couperin’s keyboard works are kitsch as well—not that I have any intentions of doing so!
So OK, nice work here from Yundi (Li). The music is engaging, and it is a nice switch from the usual Western warhorses, so let’s stop complaining already, and raise The Red Piano!
My Motherlandby Liu Chi Performer:
Yundi Li (Piano)
Period: Modern Written: 1955
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Delightful short pieces but horrible concertoSeptember 18, 2014By David Levy (London, England)See All My Reviews"I am a great fan of Yundi. I have almost all of his CDs and I go to hear him whenever he plays in London. So I was excited to see this CD available from Arkiv because it is not easy to find in the UK. But when I started to play it I was very disappointed with the concerto. In my opinion the work itself is dreadful, nothing like the romantic music for which Yundi is famous. I will never listen to this concerto again. However, most of the short pieces on this CD are a delight to listen to - lovely music beautifully played as one would expect from Yundi."Report Abuse