The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: YUNDI, the pianist formerly known as Yundi Li, has new CD of Chopin’s nocturnes and will record the complete Chopin for EMI

April 16, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

He used to be Yundi Li.

He now calls himself YUNDI.

That’s right: All caps and no Li.

Isn’t that silly?

Well, I guess that what’s called re-launching and re-branding at a new home label (EMI, after Deutsche Grammophon cancelled his contract, allegedly under pressure from his competitive and flamboyant countryman Lang-Lang, who can’t hold a candle to Li’s musicianship.

But make no mistake: It is the same pianist who was a Chinese phenom who was the youngest pianist ever to win the Chopin Competition when he was 18 in 2000.

Why did he change his name?

No explanation is provided in the liner notes, which just focus on the discussing the nocturnes. But surely publicity has a lot to do with it. Remember when British violinist Nigel Kennedy became, simply, Kennedy to re-energize his career.

New name equals new exposure. That seems to be the operative equation.

Will it work? Probably. For one, he is androgynously adorable and boyishly cute – his cover photo might remind some of the young Paul McCartney on the cover of “Hard Day’s Night.”

More at the point his playing remains in top form.

I wish the recorded sound were better at capturing YUNDI’s rich tone and incredible technique. Instead, the sound seems overly resonant, and is not helped what often seems overpedalling. (I like more clarity, lightness and transparency in my Chopin.)

And I wish the program was a Chopin recital – with some mazurkas and other works including a ballade or two, some waltzes and some etudes thrown in to offset the sweetness and sameness of the nocturnes.

Some of the nocturnes — especially the less often played early ones  — could have benefited form more experience paying them. Little details need to be developed. Many of these readings seem less convincing that his scherzi and impromptus or even his Sonata in B minor.

Generally, YUNDI walks a middle road and is mainstream, without much original to say about Chopin. He is not as indulgent of Chopin’s Romantic night music as some pianists, but he doesn’t seek out the leaner muscularity and edginess of Maurizio Pollini, who won a Grammy a couple of years ago for his Nocturnes.

Still, this specially priced 2-CD album is a good deal.

Most important of all, it’s reassuring to know that Li is back in the studio. He has had some bad concert reviews for uneven live performances, and there have been questions about his maturity and career-direction ever since he moved to Hong Kong and was dropped by DG.

But he has a wide following that promises only to grow bigger through these popular works that are especially appreciated by amateur pianists and the general public. (It’s worth noting that he repeats a recording of the popular Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2, which has had more than 3.5 million hits on YouTube, below.)

And, according to EMI’s website, YUNDI will undertake to record the complete Chopin.

Here is a link to his EMI website with his new recording of the same work. (Yundi’s own website is coming soon):

As for the Nocturnes: Overall, I still prefer Arthur Rubinstein’s recordings, especially the second but also the third, for more traditional playing of Chopin’s Nocturnes, and Pollini’s version for a more modern or structural and less sentimental approach.

And there is still room for a middle approach, faster than the first and slower than the second, with an emphasis on the singing line and drama that Chopin uses in these works that rely so often on songs and processionals.

But you won’t go wrong with this recording, though it isn’t a must-have.  It is hardly definitive (can any recording really be “definitive”?) but it has many lovely moments and it marks a welcome return of a major young talent.

What do you think YUNDI (or Li)?

And of his Chopin and his new recording of the Nocturnes?

Do you have a favorite Nocturne or a favorite recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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