2023 Fou-Ts’ong International Competition winner, pianist Che Li, a Chinese-born recent graduate from New England Conservatory of Music, joined conductor Channing Yu and the Mercury Orchestra at Jordan Hall for the 1879 version of the Tchaikovsky’s First Piano concerto Saturday night in the stimulating final concert of the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts’s 2023 summer festival.
The opener, Ester Mägi’s one movement symphonic piece Bukoolika vividly portrayed various moods of the forest, opening with woodwinds immediately immersing us in the story. Mägi’s ingenious orchestration created ever-shifting scenes, and whimsical color changes between the winds, strings, celeste, and bells rang unpredictably and satisfying. Patrick Yacono gave a skillful account of the piano solos towards the end. We hadn’t even noticed the piano in the orchestration until this point. When it soloed, the unexpected timbre change washed over us, akin to emerging from the woods and encountering a vast land teeming with unnamed fruits and magical creatures. Under the baton of Channing Yu, the Mercury Orchestra brimmed over with magic and vitality. One could almost envision leaping rabbits, rapidly growing trees, centuries-old turtles, and wandering unicorns.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the different versions of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and it is not the intension of this report to compare details, but to summarize: the initial version was published and premiered in 1875 in Boston with a pickup orchestra playing from manuscript under B. J. Lang* with pianist Hans von Bülow; it has been recorded by Jerome Lowenthal and Frager Malcolm. In 1879, Tchaikovsky improved (from his perspective) the concerto and produced a second version. Roger Hecht commented in the program notes that, “The 1879 edition was the score (Nikolai) Rubinstein used whenever he performed the work as a pianist and conductor and it was the edition Tchaikovsky used when he conducted the work.”
In 2015, Kirill Gerstein recorded this version, which Channing Yu chose for Saturday night. In 1889 Alexander Siloti modified it yet again, into the concerto we most commonly hear today. Whether Tchaikovsky approved of Siloti’s changes remains a mystery. It’s interesting that the version the survived the test of time is the one that has not been officially confirmed as Tchaikovsky’s. It raises some questions: Are the composer’s final intentions absolute? If an earlier or later version, with or without the composer’s approval, serves the “work” better, can we make the decision to perform that instead? The discussion to these question are bound to be rich and passionate, but we will defer to others to partake in that can of worms.
An active performer, Che Li has played with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, and has been awarded first price in the National Youth Piano Open Competition at Shanghai Conservatory of Music and second place in the German Grotrian Competition in China, amongst many others. Right from the introduction of the concerto, one sensed the majestic, yet charming granduer in Li’s pianism. Backed by the vast and cascading orchestra, his (much-preferred) rolled chords swept over us emotionally and sumptuously. The first theme is said to be a Ukrainian folk tune, but I have yet to track down any verifiable source. Li gave an immaculate and pristine take of the first theme; the second and third themes sounded sentimental and ever flowing. Li punched strong, spotless octaves. In polyphony, Li brought out the varying voices with tasteful clarity, seemingly intertwined and separate all at once. Li’s cadenza felt a little reserved, but again, the brilliant octaves and the long, weeping melodies glistened. Under Yu, the volunteer Mercury Orchestra showed itself to be illustrious, supportive, communicative, respectful, and loving.
Conjuring booming flowers and vast grass fields, flutist Anne Kim opened the second movement in gorgeous tone and phrasing, inviting Li for a journey. During the first theme, Li delivered with clarity and high-class sentiments. To amplify the effect of the contrasting second theme, Li could use more quirkiness and eccentricity.
The third movement opens with another Ukrainian folk tune. Though at times mechanical, Li’s thrilling octaves and stubborn, precise rhythm danced with the orchestra. Apart from minor intersections of desynchronization, they played tightly. The few bars of added sequences in this version’s orchestration (which only exists in the first two versions) blurred the already exciting finale. Before the last molto meno mosso, the octaves in the piano remained in the same register, different from the more exciting jumping octaves that we know and love today. These stale octaves needed a different treatment, but it seemed as though Li played these with the feel of the jumping ones. No matter, the music erupted soon thereafter, building to a thunderous conclusion. With rapture, the crowd called Li back four times.
In the second half, Yu and the Mercury Orchestra enchanted us with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.3. In the first movement, the gorgeous strings wove in and out. The cellists played their theme alluringly, and the violins shimmered with mystical beauty. The adagio ma non troppo in the second movement took our breath away. Alec Zimmer’s expressive and tender French horn, accompanied by harpist Angelina Savoia, somberly but warmly embraced us. Then, concert master Hyunsu Ko’s violin solo became one of the highlights of the night. Ko treated five instances of the same musical contour with great care and sensitivity to harmony. This solo violin passage returned at the end of the second movement, this time echoed sequentially by oboe, clarinet, and flute. It was a wondrous display of imagination and tone color. Yu’s masterful direction fully brought out the spellbound glamour within the slow movement, echoing the soundscape of “Bukoolika.” The fugue in the 3rd movement seemed to be in danger of falling out of sync at times. A glorious ending once again caused the crowd to erupt. We’ll certainly come back for more from Mercury and Yu.
Note to the presenter: Repositioning the piano to the center for the concerto required a ten-minute staging adjustment. Mercury ought to explore a more efficient approach.
Pianist, Improviser and arranger, Chi-Wei Lo is the co-founder of Psychopomp Ensemble. Lo teaches theory at the New England Conservatory and piano/improvisation at the South Shore Piano School.
* B.J. Lang played the concerto under George Henschel the BSO’s second season (1882-1883) and
Siloti soloed with the BSO in the First Concerto in 1898.