George Li review: Miracles aplenty

Stellar Portland Piano International recitals reveal classical piano's next star

by TERRY ROSS

I could hardly believe my eyes. At intermission, the audience members were calmly milling around the Lincoln Hall lobby, chatting and buying refreshments and talking on their phones, as if they had just seen the first half of any old concert. Didn’t they realize what they’d just heard? I wanted to shake them out of their nonchalance and yell in their faces, “Don’t you have ears? This kid is great!”

George Li. Photo: Christian Steiner.

To call pianist George Li a kid is no exaggeration. But although short and baby-faced at 21 years of age, he’s nevertheless elaborately experienced, having given his professional debut at age 10 in Boston and won the silver medal at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, among other honors. His onstage aplomb at his Portland Piano International recital on Saturday afternoon, February 11, at Portland State University, was immaculate. Before beginning each piece, Li paused over the keys as if meditating, raised his hands very slowly, and then plunged immediately into the rhythm of the music. Once underway, he looked as if he were concentrating intensely while also dreaming; his hands never stopped.

During the opener, Josef Haydn’s Sonata in B Minor, Mr. Li showed technique to spare and seemed to negotiate the music with no real effort. Fast and slow music alike emerged under his fingers with exemplary clarity. And with his phrasing and expression, he succeeded in making each of the three movements a little mini-sonata of its own, and this in a piece that although programmed more frequently than most of Haydn’s other five dozen sonatas, is not especially memorable. I thought to myself, if he can make this Haydn piece sing like this, what miracles might he produce with Chopin’s Second Sonata, the next piece on the program?

Miracles aplenty, as it turned out. Although many writers say that this sonata is built around its third movement, the famous funeral march, the only evidence for this is that the march was written first, as a stand-alone piece, and the other three movements were composed later to make up the sonata. Mr. Li proved, however, that the real center of the piece is the second movement Scherzo, which is as long as the third-movement march and full of beautiful phrases and melodies. To hear Mr. Li play it was about as good as it gets. After the march, the presto finale, less than a minute-and-a-half long, was a triumphant finish to the first half. I wasn’t the only audience member who rose in a shouting, standing ovation.

Then came that intermission, where people seemed to forget what they’d heard. Very curious.

The second half of the concert consisted of Sergei Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6, about as different from Haydn and Chopin as you could find, full of Prokofiev’s signature muscularity and slashing rhythms, glowing with his distinctive personal harmonic language, tonal yet pushing at the edges of conventional tonality in its changes of key.

George Li came out, sat down, lingered with his hands over the keys, deep in his own trance. The he lowered his hands ever so slowly and was suddenly into the first-movement Allegro moderato of the most massive of all of Prokofiev’s nine sonatas. From this movement through to the closing Vivace, Mr. Li played with fire without ever losing contact with the various melodic lines. It was an astonishing performance of a very difficult piece. The audience jumped to its feet in the first of several standing ovations, after which Mr. Li played, as if to contrast with the Prokofiev, a short and quiet bonbon by Chopin.

I did not walk but ran to the box office immediately afterwards, making sure that I could attend the next day’s concert, which I had not originally intended to do. But you don’t hear a pianist like George Li every day or even every year, and I was intrigued to see what he would make of two Beethoven sonatas, Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations, and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, the famous one that Bugs Bunny played in Rhapsody Rabbit and that the Marx Brothers managed to work into several of their films.

On Sunday afternoon, after Saturday’s momentous performance, Mr. Li again more than rose to the occasion. In his opening rendition of Beethoven’s early Sonata No. 6, he did what he had done the day before with his concert-opening Haydn sonata: took a piece that is not especially memorable and made a gorgeous little mini-sonata of each of the three movements. When played with such finesse and emotion, the Sixth takes its place as a concert staple.

In Beethoven’s Sonata No. 18, Li jumped all over each of the four movements of this mature work. The closing Presto con fuoco (extremely fast with fire) brought a tumultuous end to the concert’s first half and another couple of standing ovations.

It’s puzzling and, one the other hand, not so puzzling, that Sergei Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42, is not played more often and has not been recorded anywhere near as often as many other Rachmaninov pieces. Puzzling because it’s very beautiful and ingenious. Not so puzzling because Rachmaninov wrote it for himself, and he was one of the most talented pianists in music history. Which means it’s bloody difficult.

Under Mr. Li’s fingers, though, the Variations, based on a melody not really by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) but a seemingly ubiquitous trope in late 17th- and early 18th-century music, seemed wonderfully varied and inevitable, particularly the seventh variation Vivace and the 14th and 15th variations slower iterations. That the piece ends in a slow movement, an Andante, underlines Rachmaninov’s genius and also George Li’s interpretive skill.

Next up were two pieces by Franz Liszt, famous in the 19th century as the most athletic and virtuosic of pianists. His Consolation No. 3 was a toothsome prelude to one of music history’s most memorable compositions: the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, somewhat more familiar in its orchestrated (by Liszt) version, but just as wild and fiery in its original piano arrangement. Here Mr. Li left absolutely nothing to chance, and alternately banged away or suavely soothed as the music demanded. His was a performance to remember of an extremely familiar piece, a daring piece of programming but one that worked very well.

It’s difficult to over-praise George Li’s excellence, especially as an interpreter of different kinds of European classical music, a skill we associate with much older and experienced pianists. He seems to have it all, and this reviewer would put him as one of the most likely inheritors of the crowns worn by Stephen Hough and Marc-André Hamelin, both in their fifties and a generation ahead.

Do not — repeat DO NOT — neglect to follow this amazing young musician’s career.

Recommended recordings

Haydn Sonata in B Minor
• Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion CDA67554), 2007.

Chopin Sonata No. 2
• Ivo Pogorelich (Deutsche Grammophon 415 123-2), 1981.

Prokofiev Sonata No. 6
• Sviatoslav Richter (Sony G010003256686H), 1969.

Beethoven Sonata No. 6
• Maurizio Pollini (Deutsche Grammophon 474 810-2), 2004.

Beethoven Sonata No. 18
• Maurizio Pollini (Deutsche Grammophon 479 432-5), 2014.

Rachmaninov Variations on a Theme by Corelli
• Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca 773 251-2), 2002.

Liszt Consolation No. 3
• Vladimir Horowitz (RCA 09026614152), 1993.

Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
• George Li Hunarian Rhapsody (YouTube).
• Alfred Cortot (Naxos 8.111261), 2007.

Hear Li’s recent appearance on the public radio program Performance Today.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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One Response.

  1. Nathan Davis says:

    A wonderful review…and I agree totally! I have followed George ever since he was 12 and appeared in Caracas, Venezuela performing the Saint-Saens 2nd concerto. I told myself, “I MUST see this young man in person!” The following year, I flew from Portland to Miami to hear him in the Mendelssohn G minor concerto with the Miami Symphony. Fantastic! I met him and his family at that time, and we have been friends ever since, with me traveling to Boise and Salt Lake to hear him play. He is to appear at Carnegie Hall in October…I hope to be in the audience then as well!!

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