The Boston area is home to a fair number of world-renowned musicians, but (and this is a completely subjective assessment) it seems as if few among them who are not active teachers in our conservatories make much effort to concertize locally. For that reason, Ashmont Hill Chamber Music’s Artistic Director, Mary Beth Alger, was justified in crowing over snagging a recital by George Li, the now 20-year-old pianist who took home the silver medal in last year’s Tchaikovsky Competition. The over-capacity packed-in audience attested to the rarity of the opportunity. No longer a child prodigy—he began his professional career at age nine, and we remember a rousing performance he gave when he could barely reach the pedals—Li has begun to hunker down with some of the meatiest piano repertoire, such as he presented Sunday afternoon at Peabody Hall in All Saints Church in Ashmont.
The first half of the program, most of which involved theme and variation form, was devoted to Beethoven, beginning with the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor, WoO 80 from 1806, when Beethoven was in full sail in his middle period. That year he produced, among other things, the Appassionata sonata, the Razumovsky Quartets, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony. The composer seems to have been at best ambivalent about the 32 Variations; he never sought to publish them (hence the “work without opus number” designation), and one early biographer even reported an episode in which he later scoffed that he was “an ass” to have written something like that. They are, nevertheless, among his more popular sets of piano variations, full of the earnest storminess one associates with mid-period Beethoven and his use of C minor.
The eight-bar theme sets up a harmonic pattern that Beethoven treats in the style of a chaconne, with each variation but the last held strictly to that number of measures (for those who keep track of such things, this work has the greatest number of variations of any Beethoven set bar the Diabelli Variations, though of course the total length of the former is a tiny fraction of the latter). Although not a perfect match, the harmonic and rhythmic patterns of the tune have some resemblance to those of the Folia theme on which Rachmaninoff based the Corelli Variations that Li played on the second half of the program. Li’s rendition of these variations was elegant, precise and monumental, without entirely losing a sense of fun. We especially enjoyed the clarity of his scalar passagework and a semi-staccato attack he occasionally used. The only problem—which became endemic in the program—was the absence of a true pianissimo, which might be attributable to the particularly boomy Steinway B that AHCM regularly uses.
The Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, op. 111, Beethoven’s last, brings both performer and audience deep into furrowed brow territory. You can tell that because of the wide variation in performance times great pianists have devoted to it, from about 20 minutes for Wilhelm Backhaus and Marijan Đuzel to over 30 minutes for Marc-André Hamelin and Daniel Barenboim. Gnarly with intense harmonic complexity, tight coordination around a three-note motif, minute precision of expressive markings, it demands formidable technical requirements, as well as providing one moment in which everyone can have fun, if the performer allows it. In contrast to the standard take on late Beethoven that he stretched classical forms to near the breaking point (well, until Bruckner, Strauss and Mahler came along), the first movement is taut and compact, even taking the exposition repeat (which everyone, mercifully, does).
According to his website, Li coached this work last year at the Verbier Festival with András Schiff, so one can assume that this is not a piece he has yet firmly committed to his repertoire. His opening lacked a certain mystery that many of the greats bring to it. Much of the material in the first movement suggests a Bach invention (while the development section is overtly contrapuntal, the exposition and recapitulation are characterized more by parallel passagework), but we didn’t think Li made the most of that, and his transition to the second subject was abrupt and relied too much on slowing down. That said, Li was most impressive in providing momentum, and happily applied the pedal very judiciously. The second movement (this is one of a handful of Beethoven sonatas with only two movements) is another set of variations, marked Adagio, whose C major serenity starkly contrasts with the drama of the first movement. Li presented the theme with a calm pregnant with suppressed energy. The variations initially use decreasing note values to bring a sense of speeding up despite the underlying tempo’s remaining constant. The moment of fun comes in the third variation, in which many have found a proto-boogie-woogie rhythm, though Li was much more restrained with it than we had expected, particularly from a young American. Aside: Beethoven was not the first classical composer to have anticipated jazz: consider the first prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; and, of course, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony debuted the tango. Li carefully staged the build-up of forces, providing lilt and grace in the second variation and fine delicacy in the intermezzo-like fourth. The recapitulation of the theme was rhapsodic and showed remarkable dynamic shaping (within the limitations mentioned earlier). While Li’s performance did not stand up to the finest of the graybeards’, it gave every indication that it was a way-station on becoming so.
Following intermission Li moved more into the realm of entertainment, starting with Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, op. 42 (thus the immediate predecessor to his Paganini Rhapsody). Go on YouTube and you will find three or four separate performances of this piece by Li, so it’s definitely an arrow he keeps in his quiver. Which is interesting, inasmuch as he one of only a few non-Russian pianists to do so. The work has had a checkered history—Rachmaninoff himself wasn’t too pleased with it, and would often abridge his own performances of it depending on how much the audience was coughing. While not at the very pinnacle of his achievements as a composer, it is still a charming work, when properly understood. First off, the obligatory reminder that the theme, La Folia, was not by Arcangelo Corelli, but is a tune of ancient lineage that had evolved over several centuries from a fast dance to a slow one by the time Corelli wrote his own set of variations on it. Many other composers have used it as well. As to Rachmaninoff’s set, one pianist-scholar has suggested that its “problem” is that there seems not to be an overall architecture to the 20 variations plus interlude, but the work makes better sense if viewed as a set of character pieces in the tradition of Schumann. In the event, Li ranged widely over the familiar Rachmaninoff sonic landscape, here full and round, there dreamy, elsewhere rhythmically pungent, another place loopy and droopy, and in the closing variations fast and furious up to the surprisingly ruminative coda. Having played this piece (originally at the suggestion, he told us, of his teacher Wha Kyung Byun) for some time, he may want to revisit his esthetic choices at some point; a good place to look would be at the magisterial performance by the legendary Lazar Berman, here.
The last two works on the program, as it were, programmed encores, began with Liszt’s Consolation No. 3 in D-flat, S. 172 (the third of six Pensées poétiques), a gentle and lyrical idyll (which may have been modeled on the Chopin nocturne Li performed as a proper encore). Li kept a fine balance of motion and reverie, leaving the music in suspension at the end. After that came a somewhat quirky and rubato-rich but eventually fiery reading of Liszt’s familiar Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 with a cadenza by Rachmaninoff that made no attempt to match Liszt’s style—sort of an Edwin Lutyens addition to a Georgian manor. There followed two bona fide encores, Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, op. 27 No. 1, and one of Li’s favorites, Liszt’s La Campanella, which he brought off with brilliant éclat.