18th International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Hunter College
July 27th, 2016
Haydn: Sonata in B Minor, Hob. XVI:32, L. 47
Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 35
Rachmaninoff: Variations On a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42
Liszt: Consolation in D-Flat Major, S. 172
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, S. 244/2
George Li is a very busy young pianist who somehow manages to be a student at Harvard while traveling all over the world playing concerts. He has won many impressive prizes and awards, including the Silver Medal at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, a 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, First Prize at the 2010 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and the 2012 Gilmore Young Artist Award. He has a remarkable technique – nothing seems too difficult for him, a beautiful tone, and a nice Romantic sense which always gives color and shape to the music he’s playing.
I liked very much his performance of the Haydn Sonata, which sounded like a surprisingly modern work in his hands. The first movement was warm, beautifully inflected, and thoughtful. The second movement was graceful, with elegant, precise ornaments, and the last movement sounded threatening, despite its sotto voce beginning. It featured one of the evening’s first displays of Mr. Li’s dazzling finger work.
The Chopin Sonata was very finely, and dramatically played. The first two movements were quite fast, indeed, though it was interesting how much slower he played the G-Flat Major middle section of the second movement. The third movement was appropriately solemn, and funereal, but the middle section in D-Flat Major moved along beautifully. In the last movement, one of the strangest, most abstract pieces ever written by Chopin, Mr. Li focused on the repetition of several rhythmic patterns. It seemed like a menacing whirlwind in the distance.
The Corelli Variations of Rachmaninoff began in a slow and spacious manner. It was alternately playful, athletic and powerful, and at all times played with technical brilliance. Some people might prefer for the time between variations, as well as the huge range of tempo changes between variations to be a little bit less, but it all “worked,” and Mr. Li held one’s attention the entire time. The coda, and soft ending were particularly effective.
After offering a lovely, moonlit, yet intense Consolation, Mr. Li launched into the Second Hungarian Rhapsody with swagger. This time one had the feeling that he was pushing his technical abilities to the max, and this was terribly exciting. As he played a very interesting coda which even a noted expert on such matters could not identify, one may assume it was by the pianist himself. In a somewhat different style, yet compatible with the Rhapsody, it led to a very fast, and exciting conclusion to the printed program.
Mr. Li’s first encore was the Liszt transcription of the Schumann song, Widmung, which he played in a lovely, sensitive manner.
The final encore was Horowitz’s transcription of the Carmen Variations. There are several performances of Horowitz playing it on Youtube, and at least three different versions that I’ve noticed. My “standard” for this work is the 1968 Carnegie Hall concert which was recorded for television. I’m not ready to say that I prefer Mr. Li’s version over Horowitz, though he’s sometimes more accurate (such as in the last E Minor section, into which Horowitz throws himself at kamikaze speed) but it was very brilliantly done. Indeed, only a real virtuoso would attempt this music. And that Mr. Li certainly is.