Only ten lucky listeners had gathered at the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall recital on March 13th to hear Tchaikovsky Competition silver medalist George Li. In the delayed stream, which debuted last night, one could hear 20 hands clapping in gratitude for Li and his honored masters, and the transmitted atmosphere nearly evoked the spirit of a real concert. If initially I experienced the received sound as rather dry, it could have been just nostalgia for sitting among fellow concertgoers, though it also honestly reflected Calderwood’s sonic qualities.
The Beethoven and Liszt selected to salute Russell Sherman (Mr. Sherman to the performer and presenters) started with perfectly pleasant Andante Favori before proceeding to the enormous and valedictory opus 111. Li’s interpretation of that final sonata came across as heartfelt and powerful, with a tortured and fully gripping Maestoso. His command of colors sparkled in the Arietta, which flowed with natural ease and full concentration in every turn. It was not the kind of hypnotic Arietta that I treasure from my most memorable encounters with opus 111, but it transported me from my sofa — if not to a celestial kingdom — then certainly to a wonderful atmosphere of a dimly lit space, where breathing human beings can enjoy the rich sounds of a brilliant pianist’s tribute to his teacher and inspiration.
Then came the Liszt Sonata. To be fair, some listeners could decide that they had overdosed on Faustian drama and bombastic excitement in the last few months, and would rather skip this piece; I would sympathize. But for those who still wanted it, this was the kind of performance to seek out. Li started with rather theatrical poking at the initial lower Gs — Bilbo Baggins hesitant to enter the dragon’s lair came to mind — and the uncanny forces he was attempting to awaken obliged to the fullest. With juicy triple fortes, broad tempo variations, and occasional speedy passages that boastfully and thrillingly accelerated on the go, this traversal gripped from the first poke to the last gloomy B. It must have thrilled the lucky audience as far as I could judge via my Yamaha soundbar.
The un-credited videographer’s contributions either enhanced or annoyed, depending on one’s appetite for multiple camera angles. We watched reversals, inversions, closeups and long shots change willy nilly. Such stylistic excess can be distancing if the intent is to simulate the view from the best seat in the house. Also the exaggerated contrast resulted in crushed blacks.
The concert appropriately finished with touching tributes to Li’s teachers before and up to Sherman. He gave incandescent accounts of the Liszt/Schumann Widmung and Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor op. posthumous.
Th recording is available HERE for the next few weeks at, so Liszt fans can get their immediate fix and fantasize about times when these kinds of bravura sound waves will again reflect off their own hall-seated bodies.
Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.