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RECITAL REVIEW

Pianist George Li

GLITTERING PIANISM IN LI'S OAKMONT RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Thursday, April 11, 2019

Piano prodigies have always been a fascination for the music public, and the greatest of them (some were Mozart, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Saint Saëns, Hofmann) went on to legendary fame. George Li, who made is local debut at a Music at Oakmont recital April 11, was a remarkable recent keyboard prodigy that now is establishing an important international career at the age of 24. A Wunderkind is now a splendid recitalist.

His program was conventional and in many ways his interpretations of Beethoven and Liszt were conformist, albeit at a virtuoso level of technique and insight. Beethoven’s Andante Favori and the C Major “Waldstein” Sonata comprised the first half before 200, the largest recent audience in Berger Auditorium. The Andante (WoO 57) was played with just the right tempo with sprightly small ornaments that moved around the principal note and often a staccato touch. Phrases were shaped with care. A finished performance.

Impeccable scale technic was a prime part of Mr. Li’s Beethoven Sonata, and throughout the performance his exemplary pianistic prowess was on full display. The command of seamless changes in volume and rhythm characterized the opening allegro, with scant attention paid to ritards or the humor in the writing. Haydn is often noted as the humorist in classical period music, but Beethoven is also a master of comedy in his scores, an approach foreign to Mr. Li’s conception, at least in this afternoon’s reading.

The slow adagio molto was spiritually shaped with a whiff of mystery, and calmly lead into the concluding Rondo. Marked allegretto moderato, standard interpretations of this magical movement are played in a dreamy style, and Mr. Li did so effortlessly with expert pedaling but no pedal point or inner voices. Scale playing was again faultless and he chose to play the famous octave passages in both hands as scales rather than employing glissandos. The bright top register of the hall’s piano was ideal for the “Waldstein” interpretation.

Two Liszt works, the Sonetto Del Petrarca No. 104 the Les Jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este (from Années de Pèlerinage, Vol. 3), began the second half and were highlights of the afternoon. Here the pianist’s repeated note mastery, fast trills and novel soft sforzandos produced a shimmering sense of water inspired by the Tivoli Villa near Rome, and perfection in running thirds and subtle dynamic control came in the Sonetto. The decrescendo in the last few bars of the Sonetto was captivating and masterfully phrased. Rich tonal color was also heard in each of these pieces.

Reminiscences of Don Juan, from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, closed the formal program in a blaze of virtuosity. Mr. Li’s technical arsenal seems to have everything, and everything is needed in this 16-minute pianistic tour de force - speedy octaves, skips, detaché touch, brilliant repeated chords, fluent thematic statements and clarity at places of exceptional difficulty. However, for this extravagant music Mr. Li lacked a critical item of technic – instrumental volume and sonority.

Orchestral sonority in piano playing is not a factor of the pianist’s physical size, and many powerhouses in the past (Rosenthal, Anton Rubinstein, Hofmann, Horowitz) were below average in height. The sound needed for a great performance of Liszt’s Don Juan is produced by a mix of arm and shoulder strength, speed of key descent and adroit pedaling. Mr. Lee’s interpretation, however admirable, could not generate the needed musical force and demonic punch. Musical histrionics demand tumult.

Of course the playing brought down the house, and the artist returned to the stage and played a melting and mournful Intermezzo from Brahms’ Op. 118, No. 6. Another encore was demanded and he launched into the virtuoso showpiece of Liszt’s third study (La Campanella) from the set of Paganini Etudes from 1851. His dazzling command of upper register repeated notes never failed him.