Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" (CD review)
If you've been following classical music these last few years, you're no doubt familiar with the Chinese pianist Yundi. He was a musical prodigy who in 2000 became the youngest person ever to win the International Frederic Chopin Competition. After making several recordings with DG, EuroArts, Maxell, and EMI (now Warner Classics), he's back with DG (in conjunction with Mercury Classics) for this recording of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 and Schumann's Fantasy in C Major, with no less than the Berlin Philharmonic and Maestro Daniel Harding in accompaniment.
Li Yundi, Yundi Li, or simply Yundi as he currently wants folks to call him, is enormously popular throughout the world, thanks mainly to his enormous technical prowess on the piano. It's hard to argue with his virtuosity after hearing only a few notes of the Beethoven. His pianistic abilities are enough to leave listeners openmouthed in awe. The question one must ask about Yundi, however, is how much heart, thought, and soul he can communicate through his prodigious talent. That question, I'm afraid, is still open, no matter how much a person may love his technique. A while back I said of his Chopin Nocturnes recording that even though I liked it quite a lot, I wasn't always as moved by the performances as I was those of a few other, more-established pianists like Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, and Maurizio Pollini. I would say the same thing of his Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1, again liking it quite a bit. Regardless, interpretation is largely a matter of taste, and everyone's taste differs. Certainly, Yundi's present reading of the "Emperor" Concerto is as exciting and entertaining as they come.
Anyway, Beethoven composed his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 73, "Emperor," in 1809, premiering it in 1811 and dedicating it to the Archduke Rudolf, his patron and student at the time. It was the composer's final piano concerto, and it would go on to become one of his most-popular pieces of music. The work's "Emperor" nickname, though, was not of Beethoven's doing. In fact, he probably would not have liked it, given his disillusionment with the Emperor Napoleon. It was most likely Beethoven's publisher who gave the piece the "Emperor" appellation, or possibly it was the fact that Beethoven first presented the music in Vienna at a celebration of the Austrian Emperor's birthday.
No matter who's playing the "Emperor," the pianist must provide a big, bold opening Allegro, and here Yundi does so in spades, the whole performance full of energy, enthusiasm, and, above all, that virtuosity I mentioned above. Maestro Harding maintains some brisk tempos, yet they are never terribly fast or rushed, so both the piano playing and the orchestral accompaniment seem well within the Romantic tradition.
In the opening, where the piano enters immediately, Yundi is dazzling, his finger work a marvel to hear. This is a spectacular realization of the score, with the Berlin Philharmonic providing a sparkling accompaniment. Yet for all the ear-catching dazzle, it still left me wondering if Serkin, Kovacevich, Ashkenazy, Kempff, and others don't provide a more penetrating interpretation. While Yundi surely maintains a riveting forward momentum, he hardly slows down enough to give us much more than that, and when he does relax, it seems almost perfunctory, as though the score simply obligated him to do so, without much real feeling in it. Exciting, as I say, yes, and for many listeners that's no doubt more than enough. To which I say, fair enough; it is quite magnificent piano playing.
Although Yundi takes the Adagio a bit more briskly than any of the pianists I mentioned above, he nevertheless keeps the mood glowingly serene and effects a smooth melodic flow throughout. Again, however, the movement failed to touch me as much as other renditions have, the melancholy of the music somewhat eluding the pianist. Then Yundi makes a seamless transition into the final Rondo-Allegro, which may seem a little too calculated for some ears but worked fine for me. He ends things on an appropriately rollicking, heroic note.
German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote his Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17 for solo piano in 1836, revising it for publication in 1839. The first movement is melodious and impassioned, the second movement grand and majestic, and the finale leisurely and contemplative. Beethoven was apparently the inspiration for Schumann when he wrote the Fantasy, along with Schumann's longing for his beloved Clara. Yundi says of the work, "I wanted to create a sonority which echoes what Schumann called 'drawing a veil' over the music. What lies beneath the veil could be palpable, but one can never really tell what it is or what it looks like. This is the sense of the Fantasy--a grey area where reality and Romanticism co-exist. I hope the listener will be able to hear this complexity in my recording and pick up on this feeling of not being able to put one's finger on something."
I found Yundi's realization of Schumann more to my liking than his Beethoven, with not just the music but even the piano sounding more resonant and glowing. That I continue to wish he would communicate a greater emotional range in his playing is probably attributable to my own sentimentality rather than any reflection on Yundi's style. His Fantasy has a sweet, calming, uplifting effect on one's spirit, and one can hardly complain about that.
Producers Christoph Franke (Beethoven) and Helmut Burk (Schumann) made the recording with engineer Rainer Maillard at Teldex Studios, Berlin in January and February 2014, and Deutsche Grammophon and Mercury Classics are jointly producing and distributing the disc. The sound in the Concerto is supremely clear and clean, every note reproduced in minute detail. It's also just a tad bright and forward in the upper midrange, with only modest orchestral depth, but these are minor concerns. The Berlin Philharmonic produce a rich, lush, glorious sound, and it's good to hear them miked at a moderate distance in a studio, without an audience present. The piano is dominant, of course, yet it isn't so far forward that it spoils the illusion of realism. The piano in the Fantasy sounds, as I say, warmer and more resonant, a touch less hard and bright.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.