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):

http://www.emiclassics.com/releaseabout.php?rid=49735

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

8 Comments »

  1. Hi Jake, good review and I’d have to agree that for me, Rubinstein has done this marginally better than Li. However I do really enjoy this take on the nocturnes and were anyone to favour this recording over any other I’d not have a problem with that.

    As for the name changing, I suspect that as a Chinese man he’s merely getting fed up with us Westerners getting his name wrong.

    His name is Li Yundi, as in family name first, followed by personal name. Something that always is mis-read over here, hence why Chinese students change their name for western friends and actors always swap it around Ziyi Zhang for instance used to be Zhang Ziyi.

    For a while he went by Yundi Li, but I imagine he probably just wants to be known by his first name than having to swap or keep explaining.

    Or I might be wrong and he’s actually just a big poser! Who knows.

    Anyway, great review. Thanks.

    Comment by Richard — March 7, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    • Hi Richard,
      Thank you reading then offering an intelligent reply.
      I agree except for the name change, though I would also go Rubinstein more than marginally better.
      I still think it is changing labels and marketing — like Nigel Kennedy, the punky Brit violinist, going to just Kennedy — and then back again.
      One name may seem like better branding — kind of like in the fashion world with Chanel, Dior, etc.
      Keep reading and offering your insights.
      Best wishes,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — March 7, 2011 @ 11:55 am

  2. Thanks Jake, for your review of Yundi Li’s Nocturnes. I haven’t bought it yet.

    So far, my favourite is Ivan Moravec’s. He played the pieces with a dreamy flow, without over romanticising them like Arrau. I feel this is the most appropriate interpretation of the Nocturnes (night music).

    Maria Joao Pires’ came a close second. I normally like Pollini a lot, however his Chopin Nocturnes recording is not one of my favourites. I struggled to try and understand what he was trying to say with the music. I found his playing disjointed, and he seemed to pedal a lot more than most of my other recordings.

    My favourites Nocturnes are the two Op. Posth. – C# minor and C minor.

    Fu Ts’ong recorded some of the best Nocturnes in the late 50’s and early ’60s. I didn’t care much for his 1990’s recording with Sony, though.

    Comment by Felix Tso — July 21, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    • HI Felix,
      Thank you for reading and commenting.
      You clearly are a discerning listener. And you make some good cases and comparisons. Many critics and listeners do like Moravec.
      You don’t mention any of Arthur Rubinstein’s recordings of Chopin’s Nocturnes. I especially like the second set, though his last one is great too.
      I hope you will try listening to them and let us know what you think about how they compare to the others you mention.
      I would also like to know what you think of the new Nocturnes set by Nelson Freire, which I have reviewed on the blog. They seem very polarizing.
      Ultimately, I find, certain pianists play certain particular nocturnes best — and that no single set is completely satisfying.
      Happy listening to you.
      And I hope to hear more from you about other recordings and other repertoire.
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 22, 2010 @ 8:10 am

  3. A minor point, but Nigel Kennedy did not change his name to advance his career. He decided to use “Kennedy” for his classical work and “Nigel Kennedy” for his non-classical work, so that people would know what they were getting when concerts were advertised and CDs issued. It turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare, so he reverted to “Nigel Kennedy” for all his work.

    Comment by Elsie Stockdale — April 16, 2010 @ 6:04 pm

    • Dear Elsie,
      Many thanks for the clarification.
      The lesson still seems to be to stick to your own name — or at least to one name.
      One identity is enough, no?
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 16, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

  4. I work at Naxos of America and we just released a great Yundi film last month (EuroArts)! It’s a documentary portrait of Yundi as he works with Maestro Seiji Ozawa to prepare for his Berlin Phil debut.

    Comment by Kelly — April 16, 2010 @ 9:18 am

    • Hi Kelly,
      Thanks for reading and writing.
      The film (DVD?) sounds great.
      I didn’t know about it, so thanks for filling me in.
      Any chances you can send me a review copy and I will post about it?
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — April 16, 2010 @ 9:47 am


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