George Li at St John’s

George Li at St John`s Smith Square
A 6 am flight from Rome left me with an entire day of music in London .
And what music !
First to Perivale for Hugh Mather’s remarkable Tuesday early afternoon piano series.
By the time Alex had finished the snow was but a dream and an inconvenience that had passed.
And so on to St John’s Smith Square.
The last recital in the International Piano Series before it moves back to the refurbished Queen Elisabeth Hall for another great English talent Benjamin Grosvenor on the 26th April.
Strange that it seems to have taken longer to refurbish the QEH and Purcell Room than it did to build it from scratch! I remember Madam Tillett who was not sending her artists there and opened her own more central hall in Regent Street with a glittering roster stars who faithfully followed her.
Woe betide any that did not!
It never took off and believe cost Madam Tillett a fortune only to have to concede that the South Bank was indeed the place to be.
Memories of the Queens Hall bombed during the war were long forgotten.
SJSS has long been a venue for great pianists and I remember a memorable BBC live lunchtime recording of the Hammerklavier with Maurizio Pollini as well as recitals by Shura Cherkassky.
It boasted one of the best pianos in town and a quite acceptable acoustic to boot ……of course to us in the know the real secret lay and still does in the crypt!
Having travelled all night I was determined not to give in to my dreams and was glad to see the name of George Li with a recital of Beethoven,Chopin,Rachmaninov and Liszt.
A London debut in grand style with this recital and also the Tchaikowsky concerto at the RFH.
I was glad to get the chance of hearing live this young man who had impressed so much on the streamed performances from the Tchaikowsky Competition in 2015.
All the fun of the circus indeed and very unfair for a jury doing their best to choose just one winner from a roster of potential stars.
And so George Li ,so youthful looking even now ,winning the silver medal in Moscow in 2015.
Joint second prize with Lucas Genusias .
Lucas Debargue coming in fourth.
All names that since then have been taking some of the major platforms by storm.
The actual winner of the Gold medal Dmitry Masleev seems to have almost disappeared.In fact he did not seem to have the personality of Li ,Genusias or Debargue but had a prodigious command of the keyboard and truly deserved to be crowned.
Such is the Circus aspect of the Competitions that abound these days .
But its real job is allow us to see the great talents in the making.
Mitsuko Uchida came second in Leeds and Alfred Brendel fourth in Busoni to Michelangeli’s seventh in Brussels.
In that same year of 2015 in Bolzano there was Bolai Cao who stood out for his musicality a born pianist who came in fifth and Eun Seong Kim last summer who was a quite remarkable talent came in fourth.
Tony Yun winner of the Rosalyn Tureck Competition still only 17 is beginning to be noticed.
It is just a question of time.
The ingredients are there as possibly never before in such abundance.
It is a question of maturing,polishing to perfection under inspired guidance.
Like the great painters who had their own school of craftsmen who could learn their art from their master.
From father to son indeed.
All the above are still studying under enlightened teachers Bolai Cao in Philadelphia with Sofronitzky and George Li at Harvard with Wha Kyung Byun.Eun Seong Kim at the remarkable University of the Arts in South Corea.
And so it was very interesting to hear George Li live three years on.
Still very youthful looking he has a career which is beginning to blossom in many parts of the world helped by Valery Gergiev who was the chairman of the jury in Moscow and in a commanding position as one of the worlds great conductors to notice and help great talent when he sees it.
The immediate thing about George Li which also came across on streaming was his charisma and the rapport that he was immediately able to instill with the public.
Always great beauty of sound which was apparent from the Beethoven Sonata op 10.n.2 with which he opened his programme.
One of Glenn Gould’s favourite sonatas every note was made to speak with a charm and grace that contrasted so well with the Beethovenian outbursts which were becoming even more apparent in these three early op 10 Sonatas .
A real break away from the world of Haydn into the world of Sturm and Drang that was so much part of Beethoven’s personality in his so called middle period.
The Allegretto strangely slow seemed to creep in but seemed to work in George Li’s hands as a contrast to the Rage over a lost penny of the final Presto.
However in the Chopin B flat minor Sonata this individuality became a impediment to the overall line.
It is as though his very admirable temperament and rapport with the public was taking precedence over his intellectual and musical control of such an important work.
A masterpiece that we have heard from the hands of nearly all the great pianists past and present.( Strangely Richter is about the only performance by a great pianist that I never recall being mentioned).
He indeed wallowed in the beauty of the cantabile second subject but in forsaking the inward rhythmic energy it seemed to loose its overall impact and great architectural shape.
The great bass in the development section was rather overpowering and did not seem to be a consequence of what had come before or what came after.
The Scherzo was thrown off with some liberty that lead to some almost jeux perle abandonment of what should be like a rock to contrast with the sheer beauty of the contrasting melancholic cantabile section.
The Trio of the Marche Funebre was played with a stillness that contrasted well with its sombre surrounds but here again could have been played in a much simpler way.
The beauty of this contrast is the utter simplicity with which it appears.
Rubinstein was the master who could reveal this to us in a unique way.
Sentiment but not sentimentality!
The wind over the graves of the last movement was a little bit too lightweight but played with great virtuosity.
It somehow missed the structure that in fact comes from the the bass and not just in the in the fast virtuosic filigree that abounds.
The Corelli variations that opened the second half was played with great energy and elan Some memorable sounds from the full sumptuous grandiosity to the simple nostalgic russian melancholy.
A performance with many great moments but also many that will gain in stature with maturity.
The utmost clockwork precision that Rachmaninov asks for in the fast filigree sections could be much more precise and less for immediate audience appeal for effect.
A wonderful control of sound for a young man who obviously is in love with the piano and able to communicate that love to his audience.
As he advances his studies he will realise that that is an empty victory for someone so hugely talented.
I found the beauty of the melody in the D flat consolation a little overpowered by the accompaniment but there were some truly magical moments before erupting into the Second Rhapsody where more control and simplicity could be added to his quite remarkable ability to communicate with his audience.
His two encores were greeted by a standing ovation of course.
The Gluck /Sgambati Melody from Orpheus and the Horowitz Carmen Fantasy gave the game away.
Here is a man who loves the piano and loves playing in public and he is obviously having a great success …on the crest of a wave.
A wave that will last only a short while if he does not go back to the drawing board and study the great classics which will allow him so much more freedom and enjoyment when as a mature artist he really lets his hair down.
It was however a remarkable debut recital for someone so young and hopefully on his reappearances he will mature into the great artist that his talent demands.


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