I am a musician who has always found prodigies downright scary. How on earth did they get so good at such a preternaturally young age? What have they channeled that the rest of us missed?
The 16-year old prodigy George Li has already done it all, in pianistic terms. He has run off with the best prizes (since he was six), honors, appearances at the White House and with orchestras since he was nine, (Cleveland Orchestra recently), and has been the subject of repeated audience and reviewer adulation. One prize-giver even bent the rules so someone Li’s age could enter and win. I briefly thought about skipping his concert — did he really need another review? — but am thrilled I didn’t miss it, because the concert on February 5 at the Isabella Stewart Museum Sunday Concert Series was one of the best piano recitals I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.
The bespectacled Li also has been appearing on television since he was nine, an adorable boy with a big smile and, until very recently, braces. A person hearing such a huge talent is bound to be mystified: how can a prodigy play all this so brilliantly and with such extraordinary musicianship? And one must keep in mind that this program is a different one than he played just a few months ago.
Li, who still looks much younger than his 16 years, began his program with Haydn’s Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50. He sat down at the piano (the lid was removed) and simply played with stunning sensitivity and musicality so brilliantly that one is, at first, stunned. How can this youngster give the best of them a run for their money with Haydn, so seemingly straightforward and simple? (Like other pieces on this program, it appears with an even younger Li on YouTube).
Robert Schumann’s Abegg Variations, Op. 1 doesn’t get played very often, which is a shame. Schumann the dreamer drops in, but mostly there is a lot of technical brilliance. Even early Schumann is good Schumann, and Li reintroduced us so deftly to this piece.
I had my seat belt fastened for the tonal but seriously dissonant Bartók Sonata, and sure enough, Li delivered all the pyrotechnics needed when faced with its double octaves, percussiveness, and all the wild qualities that Bartok brings to the music he wrote for piano. It was terrific.
After a short intermission, Li played three famous piano preludes of Debussy. “General Lavine” – excentrique was played with exactly the nuttiness and humor necessary — a delight. The well-known La fille aux cheveux de lin (Girl with the flaxen hair) was also just right: not too much sentimentality, the right amount of rubato. Finally Feux d’artifice was played just perfectly; the myriad technical challenges, explosive moodiness were just nailed.
I always saw Schubert’s beloved Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (“Wanderer”) as a mature pianist’s piece, perhaps because I grew up on an old Rubenstein record of it. Li opened it perfectly with a big, gorgeous sound and an ideal tempo. The lyrical passages were beautiful, the adagio unsentimental but lovely, the voices and passagework perfect. Shall I go on?
Two encores followed: Liszt’s La Campanella on YouTube) and Schubert/Liszt’s “Hark, Hark the Lark.” The audience was thrilled. I would guess that had a CD of George Li been on sale, it would have sold out in a heartbeat.