The Liszt b minor sonata is surely one of the pinnacles of all piano works, and there's little question that it has been well-served in recordings. Among the marvelous performances preserved on CD are those by Argerich, Arrau, Bolet, Brendel, Fleisher, Kempff, Nojima, Pollini, Richter, Serkin. Please notice that this list is in alphabetical order, implying no rank ordering. And I could have included Horowitz (not one of my favorites, but treasured by some). I'm sure I've left out some that others might have been mentioned. All of this is in service of asserting that there is a new pianist whose recording we must include in any such listing: Yundi Li.
Yundi Li is a very young Chinese pianist, native of Chongqing (Chungking), who at 19 was the youngest Warsaw Chopin Competition First Prize winner since Maurizio Pollini in 1960 and the first outright winner in fifteen years; he had won the Utrecht Liszt competition the year before. It is often said, and generally true, that Chopin players don't make good Liszt players, and vice versa. Although I haven't heard his Chopin discs (one from the Warsaw competition, and a studio recording released recently on DG), it has been remarked that Mr Li excels at both. Certainly, on the basis of this disc he excels at Liszt. For my money, the best Liszt players are often outstanding not so much at Chopin as at Beethoven, and if you look at the above list of other outstanding performers of the Sonata, you'll see that's generally true. I can hardly wait to hear Yundi Li in Beethoven. The b minor sonata is the most Beethovenian of Liszt's works, I believe, largely because the tight construction and enormous emotional range are reminiscent of the master from Bonn.
There tend to be two polar approaches to this sonata. There are the barn-burners, the players who take its considerable technical hurdles as challenges and demonstrate their disregard of these difficulties with devil-may-care performances: Argerich, Fleisher, Horowitz. And there are the bards, the poets who perceive the sonata as an autobiographical excursion, a Faustian story: Arrau, Richter, Pollini. There are some who come somewhere in between: Nojima, Serkin. Each has a point of view, each has validity. Some prefer the virtuoso approach for its own sake. I don't. Some prefer the poetic approach, but that risks self-indulgence. And some prefer the middle road, as I do. This is not to say that the middle road is bland, it is not. It partakes of both the emotionality of the one and the brilliance of the other. And it is in this group that I place Mr Li; add to this his grasp of the architecture of the sonata. If I had to choose (and this is highly arbitrary, but I'm trying to give a point of reference for those who know the other recordings) I'd say he comes closest to the approach of Arrau, but with some of the clarity and objectivity of Nojima. For me, that is a magical mix. It does not hurt that the recorded sound is extraordinarily rich, with a slight bass emphasis. Even in the recurring 'hammer blow' octaves (Liszt's own term), there is no clangor but inexorable dramatic force. In the fugue toward the end there is lightness, precision, forward drive, even impetuosity. And in the lyrical sections there is melting beauty. There is much subtle variation in tempo and dynamics which sounds spontaneous rather than calculated. Above all, there is the sense that young Mr Li is telling a very personal story that, with all its inevitability for those who know its outlines, still has the power to shock, to surprise, to move.
We must speak for a moment about the other works included here: La Campanella, 'Widmung,' Liebestraum No. 3, Tarantella, the Rigoletto Paraphrase. Those that require unmitigated virtuosity (Campanella, Tarantella, parts of Rigoletto) have it in breathtaking abundance. But it is in the lyrical pieces ('Widmung,' Liebestraum) that Li's artistry is most evident. These are individually some of the best Liszt playing I've ever heard.
I tend to be skeptical about 'hot' young pianists, but I'm sold. I've ordered his other two recordings on the basis of this disc. I can hardly wait.