New York Times 23 May 2010
Shedding a Name, and Perhaps More
by Steven Smith
Chopin, understandably, has been inescapable this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth. And Yundi’s connection to the composer is hardly superficial. In 2000, at 18, he became the youngest pianist to win the prestigious International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. He was also the first Chinese winner and the first pianist to be awarded first-prize status (sometimes no first prize is awarded) in 15 years. Hardly slight accolades.
Still, Thursday’s recital offered more questions than answers. That Yundi retains the sovereign technique with which he first commanded attention was clear in note-perfect flurries and thunderous climaxes. But the intelligent engagement that initially set his playing apart from Mr. Lang’s gaudy efflorescence was in short supply during an opening set of five nocturnes; elastic phrasing was often thwarted by murky pedaling.
An audience that exploded after each piece surely contributed to a lack of sustained mood. Yundi warded off interruption during the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise — the andante deftly spun, the polonaise puckish and mercurial — but applause erupted again before the final notes.
The second half of the program started much the same way, with audience effusions trampling the final bars of the four Opus 33 Mazurkas. Among these, the third stood out: melting loveliness gave way to robustness, yielding a net impression of wistful nostalgia. The first movement of the Sonata No. 2 was a tumultuous conflict of darkness and light, and Yundi’s expressive shading in the second movement was persuasive. But the famous funeral march felt oddly numb, and the finale passed in a blur.
After concluding with a splashy Polonaise in A flat (Op. 53, “Heroic”), Yundi returned for two encores: “Rosy Clouds Chasing the Moon,” a pentatonic Chinese folk melody draped with frippery, and a lightning-bolt account of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Étude (Op. 10, No. 12).