Maybe the rivalry got to him

Times Staff Writer

Partisanship invades classical music as much as it does politics. People love to have heroes and take sides: Pavarotti versus Domingo, Callas versus Tebaldi. And, currently, Lang Lang versus Yundi Li.

The two young Chinese pianists (both are 25, but Lang Lang is nearly four months older) are said to be locked in an intense rivalry. Fans debate which one has the more extensive repertory. Who plays the most concerts? Who is the greater artist? The greater rock star?

It helps fuel the controversy that they record for the same label, Deutsche Grammophon, although they have different performance styles. Lang Lang is the extrovert, the flamboyant, head-thrown-back Romantic, the Dionysiac. Li is the introvert, the restrained keyboardist, the Apollonian poet.


Nothing is quite so simple. Li has just released a critically acclaimed DG disc of Prokofiev’s knuckle-busting Second Piano Concerto and Ravel’s tangy Concerto in G with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Seiji Ozawa.

And on the evidence of his Philharmonic Society-sponsored recital Tuesday at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Orange County Performing Artscenter, Li may be moving closer to the style of his supposed rival, sometimes dismissively called Bang Bang.

Yes, there were still moments of poetry and restraint in quieter, slower passages. But almost everything on the program, be it Mozart, Chopin, Schumann or Mussorgsky, turned out to be mainly a vehicle for keyboard-slamming, showoffy virtuosity.

Perhaps a seat six rows back from the stage was too close to the Steinway Concert Grand or Li felt he needed some extra heft to project in the 2,000-seat hall.

But there were consistent issues of musical style. Li played as if he had no connection with any great tradition, as if he were encountering the music fresh off the press. Fascinating as that approach might be, it just as easily shows up some limitations in written notation as the guide to interpretation. Li certainly had all the notes but often not what was between or beyond them.

He opened the recital with a fast, cool, rather charmless and superficial account of Mozart’s Sonata No. 10 in C, K. 330. He took all the repeats but tended to rush over sectional contrasts and divisions as if they didn’t matter. He also played the final movement at breakneck speed without any nuance.

A set of four Chopin mazurkas, Nos. 22 through 25, played without break, showed little elasticity in phrasing, rhythmic rubato or architectural contrast. Again, slower pieces such as the C-major Mazurka (No. 24) or Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat, which followed the set, revealed a far more interesting poet of the keyboard.

Schumann’s “Widmung” (Dedication) was rather earthbound for all of Li’s fluent sweeps up and down the keyboard. Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante began with promising sensitivity but soon turned into yet another flashy showpiece with dynamics ranging from loud to louder.

Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which closed the recital, is not for technically weak or fearful pianists, and Li lacked absolutely nothing in technique or courage. He played one of the fastest accounts in memory. The opening Promenade, taken at a trot, set the tempo and the tone.

But each of the pictures seemed more an abstract etude than a character vignette.

“Samuel Goldenberg” was ponderous, and there was no poignancy in the responding wheedling and pleading of “Schmuyle.” The dynamic contrasts in “Catacombs” were coarse and extreme. There wasn’t much mystery in “Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua” (With the Dead in a Dead Language).

“The Hut of Baba-Yaga” was so relentlessly driven at fortissimo volume that the concluding “Great Gate of Kiev” had nothing left to build to and became a wearying series of climaxes.

It’s difficult to know what is happening to this young artist, who played his own arrangement of a traditional Chinese folk song as an encore. Maybe he’s getting bad advice on how to compete in the marketplace.