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Pianist Yundi leads with quiet force at Disney Hall

Pianist Yundi leads with quiet force at Disney Hall
Chinese pianist Yundi Li is photographed at the LA Phil in 2015. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The Chinese pianist Yundi Li, popularly known simply as Yundi, let his hands drop dramatically from the keyboard after a powerful passage toward the end of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F Minor.

The virtuoso-like flourish inadvertently signaled the end of the piece, prompting a burst of disruptive applause from an enthusiastic Walt Disney Concert Hall audience — even though the piece called for an otherworldly silence to follow and five delicately voiced chords leading into an even more explosive coda.

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For a while, it was that kind of evening.

But it was understandable. Yundi, 33, enjoys rock star-like fame, especially since becoming the youngest first-prize winner (he was 18) at the Chopin International Piano Competition.

During his Los Angeles recital Sunday, it was heartening to see so many of his young fans taking advantage of photo ops inside and outside the hall (and even while he was performing).

Notwithstanding his one major look-at-me lapse in the fourth Ballade, Yundi was on his best behavior in a mostly satisfying concert of Chopin's four Ballades and 24 Preludes, among the most challenging works in the pianist's repertoire.

He sat quietly at the piano, without feeling compelled to make moony, pseudo-Romantic looks skyward. At his best, as he was on Sunday, he let his fingers do the expressing. Maybe that's why Yundi has been called the "anti-Lang Lang."

The pianist gave a wisely paced — careful but always musical — account of the Ballade No. 1. Other pianists may go for a more visceral quality, but Yundi conveyed a powerful sense of struggle. A few missed notes and one smudged passage became part of the drama of this daunting piece. His fast legato octaves still gave off sparks, and if the 11 pedal notes and three unaccompanied bass chords didn't quite send chills up the spine in the demonic final presto, this remained an admirable account.

Also persuasive were his renditions of the less-demanding second and third Ballades, well phrased and pedaled.

His rendition of the fourth Ballade, however, was another story, literally. Pianist Stephen Hough once cited the narrative quality of the four Ballades, calling them "operas in miniature." This is true of the first Ballade, and especially of the last, one of Chopin's greatest achievements.

Though the applause before the end didn't help, Yundi's discursive account failed to generate and sustain necessary cohesion and power.

After intermission, Yundi's reading of Chopin's 24 Preludes gathered focus and energy as they unfolded. His soft-spoken Chopin still found plenty of contrast and poetry.

The pianist, at his finest conveying the introspective melancholy in the famous (and longest) Prelude No. 15 ("Raindrop"), also smartly headed off applause by diving right into the next one.

Yundi returned with a delightful encore: Ren Guang's "Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon," a sensitively embellished pentatonic Chinese folk melody.

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