An Incongruous Coupling from Yundi

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 7

After floundering at EMI, Yundi returned to DG’s fold in 2013 with a strong solo Beethoven release containing the three “name” sonatas. It therefore comes as no surprise that this pianist serves up the composer’s “name” concerto with comparable assurance, power, style, and taste. He defiantly dispatches each technical difficulty, from the first movement’s right-hand double thirds against the descending left-hand scales to the finale’s torrential coda. If the central Adagio doesn’t quite match the sustained repose of Arrau and Gilels in their primes, Yundi’s subtle accentuations give the long lyrical lines a welcome cutting edge.

Unfortunately, the spongy, diffuse orchestral framework with which Daniel Harding supports his soloist falls short of the Berlin Philharmonic’s highest standards in this music via earlier recordings (Weissenberg/Karajan, Kempff/Leitner, Foldes/Leitner, Pollini/Abbado, Barenboim conducting from the keyboard), although the timpani are ever present. Take, for example, the Grimaud/Jurowski/Dresden recording (also on DG) where the first-movement ritornello’s incisive woodwind/string interaction makes Harding/Berlin sound enervated by comparison, abetted by a slightly faster tempo and clearer engineering.

Yundi convinces less in the Schumann C major Fantasy. He shapes the gushing first movement in a straightforward and headlong fashion similar to Pollini’s recording, but without any of the older pianist’s textural diversity and sense of transition. Next to the intelligent linear contouring and parsing of the obsessive dotted rhythms that distinguish recordings by Ashkenazy and Fiorentino, Yundi’s generalized, largely undifferentiated pianism holds little interest in the central movement. Although Yundi’s brisk tempo for the finale certainly beats dragging the music to death, there’s little significant contrast between melodic lines and accompaniment figurations, and almost nothing in the way of harmonic inflections and dynamic contrast.

It’s hard to accept Yundi’s perfunctory though unquestionably competent note playing when you can find infinitely more poetic and emotionally responsive interpretations by Arrau, Kempff, Horowitz, Perahia, and Fiorentino, along with a lovely contemporaneous edition from Andreas Haefliger, and an extraordinary live archival recording on VAI from the 1977 Van Cliburn Competition where Jeffrey Swann plays like a god. And even if the performances on this disc were better, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Schumann’s C major Fantasy make an incongruous coupling.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Beethoven: Bronfman/Zinman (Arte Nova), Fleisher/Szell (Sony), Schumann: Fiorentino (APR), Kissin (RCA)

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