Yundi and Tchaikovsky, Blomstedt and Sibelius

April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Rebecca Liao

For a performer, a rough day at the office is one in which the audience is reminded that the office actually exists. It is show biz fail to admit to mistakes and allow people to see the effort. Such seemed to be the fate of the San Francisco Symphony as it kicked off its concert of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 on Saturday night at Davies Symphony Hall.

Yundi Source: EMI

According to critics who attended the weekday performances, Yundi Li did not have a smooth landing in San Francisco. Watching him walk the plank to the piano bench with Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt in tow, I could see that bitter cocktail of fresh, tepid reviews, an almost incurable discomfort with showmanship, and lingering self-consciousness from a career whose days of being the youngest winner ever of the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition are long over (Deutsche Grammophon dropped him two years ago) course through his system. He bowed stiffly. He slowly outstretched his hand and focused on its counterpart for the customary handshake with the concertmaster, awkwardly revealing that, while a duty for all soloists, it is really just that for him. His coattails needed to be adjusted several times when he first settled on the bench. His pants didn’t fit well. His hair was possibly the biggest offense of all, a far cry from the straightened-and-flipped locks of his press pictures. Without the hair and makeup team, it was a loosely crimped weave, no hints of luster or gel.

Warhorse and piano virtuoso are usually a foolproof combination. However, aside from the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 that made his name, Yundi does not speak in warhorses. Tchaikovsky’s thunderous opening chords lacked a consistency in dynamics that most pianists of his renown can rely on as an assuring warm-up. A loud, straightforward announcement such as this cannot be found in the Chopin nocturnes and Lizst sonatas that dominate Yundi’s recording repertoire. To his credit, he wrangled the notes in time to avoid distracting from the strings’ exposition of the opening theme. The effort was not without casualty: the arpeggiated notes lost the timing and deftness required to make them into a coherent forward movement. Worse, Yundi and the SFS seemed to have momentarily lost each other. Doubts of Yundi’s abilities outside the recital context were gaining traction, and the first movement had just begun.

When it came time to repeat the opening theme, the SFS and soloist had had enough. Both used the swell of Tchaikovsky’s narrative to reset, but that is not to say they then proceeded through the traditional route. The SFS can be workmanlike, bordering on robotic, with Tchaikovsky’s concertos, and Saturday night was no exception; Yundi’s calling card is a sensitive and subtle elegance most clearly heard when no other sounds threaten to overwhelm the piano. Together, they would never cruise in the stratosphere; just as well, it’s crowded up there.

Instead, they went for something much rarer: an arch reading of a heroic work, more Chekhov than Mother Russia. During the second movement, Yundi moved completely economically. He betrayed no sign of the slow swaying of the upper body and shaking of the head that has practically become a part of the technique. His fingers moved deliberately, but unhurriedly; it was a very contemplative and studied delivery that acknowledged, without milking, the plentiful nuances in the slower amble of notes.  The flute and cello solos introduced the orchestra’s response: each musician took their time with the pauses and eased into the notes that followed through an inflection point, giving the effect of a skillfully rendered soliloquy.

For those who expected fireworks from Tchaikovsky, the third movement did not disappoint. Turns out someone who has mastered Lizst can play with great speed, accuracy, and conviction. Yundi became a completely different pianist at the signal of the timpani, springing from his bench with his forehead cocked forward in intense concentration and cheeks jiggling from the sprint of his hands. To confirm that the second movement was no coping mechanism, the orchestra executed the climax with the same subtle phrasing.

Any Sibelius symphony played by the San Francisco Symphony with Blomstedt at the helm threatens to be the definitive version. But with its inversion of the classical structure, rhythmic irregularity, explosiveness and tenderness, and history as Finland’s reluctant “Symphony of Independence,” Sibelius’ second symphony is a minefield for interpreters. Herbert von Karajan all but raced through it to avoid the expressive challenges, and Leonard Bernstein’s trademark molasses pace undermined the unity of what is, on the surface, a work already precariously put together. Unlocking the internal logic of the symphony, which Sibelius preferred to emphasize over the socio-political overtones, involves a thorough and inventive understanding of its tempos, namely how they can be manipulated. There were no hints of the more rigid, almost staccato, playing from the Tchaikovsky. Rather, key motifs in each movement were parsed so that the last notes of a phrase were allowed to gradually peter out before moving on. Combined with confident execution throughout from all solos and the full orchestra, the SFS was by turns majestic and lyrical without ever losing its train of thought. Occasional wobbles from the brass and woodwinds aside, this was a performance so beautifully controlled that it grabbed the aura of inevitability from the first three notes and never relinquished it.

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