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Prometheus and the Poet

New York
Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Music Center
07/16/2019 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: 32 Variations in C Minor, WoO 80 – Andante Favori in F Major, WoO 57 – Sonata in C Major “Waldstein”, Opus 53
Robert Schumann: Vogel als Prophet, from Waldszenen, Opus 82 – Carnaval, Opus 9

George Li (Pianist)

G .Li (© Courtesy of the Artist)

The mystery of classical music is its greatest strength. There are definitely things about Beethoven and Schumann that I have learned by playing them for years and years, but there is still something that is unknowable and I cherish that.
Jonathan Biss
Nature would burst should she attempt to produce nothing save Beethoven.
Robert Schumann

Talk about your Augean challenges! The Herculean young pianist at last night’s recital for the International Keyboard Festival had an auditorium packed with families and children of all ages, each of them equipped with camera-phones, gossip, query, giggle and disquiet. Yet from the first sforzando C Minor chord to the very last resounding notes of Carvaval, the zoo was not only hushed, but they were mesmerized. George Li didn’t play like Orpheus, but his Steinway managed to calm the potentially savage beasts.

Two other mighty challenges remained. Specifically Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann. For those two giants, the 24-year-old Boston-born Harvard graduate plunged into (what Joanthan Biss called) “the unknowable”, offering a recital which at times was overpowering.

Then again, George Li has been winning awards and performing since he was ten years old. Nothing seems to bother him. His confidence and temperament go hand in hand–literally–with his emotional understanding. And those emotions were translated to us for the full recital. Albeit with a few caveats.

Certainly Mr. Li’s two hands knew how to plumb the depths. The Prestissimo finale of the Beethoven “Waldstein” was child’s play, the double-octave measures of Schumann’s Carnaval were dashed with glissandi worthy of a Stradivarius. If Mr. Li meant to impress us, there was no problem. We were suitably impressed.

What, though, did he do with the music? The smash-and-trills starting Beethoven’s early 32 Variations continued through to very last variation. We have all heard them as barely disguised exercises, or the youthful Ludwig showing off his chops. George Li never allowed youth (his own or the composer’s) to interrupt anger, violence, a torpedo-like ten minutes where the more delicate sections were like disruptions to an ultra-sturm, hyper-drang performance.

One might have missed the tonal variety, one might have asked for breath to go with the breadth. And while variations changed, one felt underneath an inelasticity. Yet Mr. Li succeeded in something more impressive: He literally tore the Classical veneer from the composer and gave us a mid-19th Century drama.

The pianist could have given us the complete original “Waldstein” next. For the work preceding the sonata, Favored Andante, was supposed to be the second movement. (Beethoven reluctantly removed it when told the work was too long, substituting perhaps the most idyllic “introduction.”). Not to waste a good theme, he sold the Andante Favori, and it became a favorite for all 19th Century budding pianists. Mr. Li gave a relatively limpid performance–until the middle, when Mr. Li opened up the emotional fireworks as the technical challenges opened.

Obviously for a pianist with such a dynamic vision, the “Waldstein” was an exemplary choice. If he played it with an obsessive tension, one couldn’t fault the effort. Again, this was faultless finger work, and Mr. Li–while not exaggerating any tempo–went headlong into Beethoven’s first movement. He had no inclination to imitate instruments in the development, he obviously saw Beethoven as the Titan, and that Allegro was Titanic. The second movement can be played with philosophical profundity, but perhaps this is reserved for older players. Mr. Li gave it a dreamy respite, but that dream came to the end with a simply terrific finale.

The demand was changing the charming theme into a whirlwind finale, and Mr. Li conquered the challenge so carefully that the hell-for-leather final measures seemed inevitable.

After the intermission and a lyrical short Schumann work, Mr. Li played Carnaval with the temperament and attitude of a totally different player. The Beethoven had left us amazed, aroused and (let’s admit it) somewhat discomfited by the ceaseless tension. Carnaval was as engaging, as varied and as satisfying as its title.

This writer once wrote that a certain pianist played Mussorgsky’s Pictures beautifully, but that he obviously had never been to an art gallery. George Li played Carnaval with his usual perfection–yet one feels he knew each of the real and fictional characters depicted by the composer.

Never averse to leaving large pauses between each movement, he gave a large packed ballroom for the Valse noble, retarding the notes as if the nobles were bowing. He contrasted Eusebius and Florestan like two swordsmen ready for battle, his Chopin was yearning, and the final March was not only triumphant, but Mr. Li accented that wondrous left-hand descant.

At the end, after two encores, one realized that George Li, no longer a wunderkind, is now a player of importance. One hopes he never slackens his mighty picture of Beethoven–but one personally also hopes that with Robert Schumann, he broadens (if that is possible) an incandescently spacious panorama.

Harry Rolnick



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