Pianist George Li, the celebrated silver medalist from the last Tchaikovsky Competition, played a benefit recital at Walnut Hill School for the Performing Arts Saturday night as one of the first alumni to appear at the new Mollie T. and John Byrnes Studio of the Delbridge Family Center for the Arts. His recital returned the favor for his alma mater’s gifts to him: “…The close attentions and guidance I received from the expert faculty shaped me into the musician I am today.”
The rather dry black box space, configured for this evening in eight steeply raked rows of about 15 seats each, was unadorned except for the blond-wood reflective shell and the glossy Steinway D. Sitting front-row-center for the first half, I could almost touch the piano. The notes, as one would expect, arrived with unameliorated immediacy. From my seat in row G during the second half, the sound broadened without losing any focus. Though more resonance would be wanted for singers and string players, the acoustics worked perfectly for the lucid Li.
We were never in any doubt that Li had the stuff of a competition winner: ruler-straight perfection of pulse, limitless velocity, gleaming clarity, a broad palette of colors including voluptuous pianissimos and triple fortes that never banged. All of this was in the service of an intellect which conjured a chess-master’s understanding of structure and strategy; his mind always worked several moves ahead of his hands.
Li’s smiling and open-handed account of Beethoven’s early period Sonata No. 6 in F Major Op. 10, No. 2 showcased all the pianist’s virtues. The precision of his articulations and perfectly lined-up chords testified to his understanding that in Beethoven, every note is important. In the allegro he used the damper pedal as an expander and a magnifier rather than as a blurring tool. Li’s attention to variety of touch assured that even with a relatively dry approach, the result was never notey. In the presto third movement, he brought real excitement to the fugal interludes. He inhabited and imbibed the music deeply—without letting it overcome his classical restraint.
Li’s straight-ahead opening to the Appassionata Sonata preceded the stormy contrasts that one expects. If a reliance on speed seemed to short-change some of the more brooding elements of pathos, the young man’s take decidedly did not vitiate Beethoven passion, rather he seemed to smile upon it, and upon the infallibility of his technique.
After intermission George Li embodied Liszt the poet, the romantic and the virtuoso, in that order. In the Petrarch Sonata Li seemed to waft incense as he considered and transmitted the mystery and pregnant meanings of the Lisztian reverie. He was at his most Byronic or maybe Sher-manic in his patient yet rhapsodic approach herein. Artistic layering of voices, niceties of coloring, and sensibilities to the harmonic twists and stentorian contrasts he judged with fine discernment. Perhaps in this work especially, he connected Liszt’s virtuoso gesture and filigree to musical ideals rather than merely to the fingers.
Then, in the hands of this competition winner, we had no shortage of perfectly shaken (not half-baked or stirred) tremolos, double octaves, scales and arpeggios to realize Liszt’s almost hallucinogenic take away from the exuberant architecture and rippling play of water of the Villa d’Este.
Liszt’s Reminiscences to Mozart’s Don Juan does great injustice to the opera’s timeline, if not its tunes, yet he also enrobes the fantasy with a deeper status as the most satisfying and original of his virtuoso transcriptions. It starts out with hellish menace of the statue’s late-in-the-opera admonition before proceeding backwards through the popular arias that echoed throughout Europe. Thus, beginning from the end and never forgetting the concluding hellfire for very long, Liszt found dissolute menace behind the charm of every one of those ditties—even “La ci darem la mano” revealed scary undercurrents. If Li avoided the neurotic twists and dramatic disruptions that his teacher Russell Sherman often imposed on this work, Li’s speed and sparkle nevertheless testified most emphatically to an astonishing technique.
The last sounds of the evening, Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, brought us consolingly down to earth (not under the earth as in what preceded). Here a relaxed, Schumannesque Li spoke as a poet to something eternal.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.