George Li, pianist. (credit: Simon Fowler)

Review: Pianist George Li makes Spivey Hall virtual debut with Beethoven, Liszt

George Li, piano
Sunday, 7 March 2021
virtual recital presented by Spivey Hall
streamed via
BEETHOVEN: Variations and Fugue in E♭ major, Op. 35
LISZT: Piano Sonata in B minor

Giorgio Koukl | 09 MAR 2021

At the age of 25 years, pianists of previous generations were timidly finishing their musical studies and, if lucky enough, their teacher permitted them to participate in some secondary piano competition.

Today things have changed dramatically and seeing the prizes already obtained by pianist George Li creates immediately a positive perception and a lot of expectations.

Certainly it’s not the technical side of the piano playing which is a problem for Mr. Li. He appears always well anchored in a confident comfort zone, even when doing the most acrobatic jumps and rapid repeated double octaves. His range of dynamics is quite impressive, a thing which helps him to build musical phrases of great plasticity and elegance. When looking at him it is immediately clear how much he enjoys making music, his body literally dancing.

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The Variations and Fugue for Piano in E♭ major, Op. 35, are a set of fifteen variations for solo piano composed by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1802. They are usually called Eroica Variations. The work opens with a single massive chord of E flat major. The beginning lies entirely on the bass of the theme, as are the three following variations, each time adding another voice. Only then the full theme enters into play. The following variations are increasingly complicated in their technical nature with a lot of hand-crossing and jumping, but the joy of making music drips literally out of every chord at least until the variation 14 in minor mode arrives. The fifteenth variation could easily replace a slow movement of a sonata.

Than an energetic and very difficult fugue follows. Here the pianist had the real playground for all his abilities. The coda is marked “Andante con moto,” brings back the theme in its most recognizable form.

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Li showcased the tiny differences between the variations with intense concentration and a dynamical plan near perfection. Usually pianists with outstanding technical abilities tend to overdo things in a show of force and virtuosity, forgetting sometimes the overall picture. Not so George Li. He stays all the time with all his abilities well in service of the composer . As he explained later in the Q&A session which followed the musical program, his favorite variation is the slow one, which was really perfectly balanced in all its aspects creating ample phrases filled with natural grace and real musical taste. This is an ability one cannot learn, but usually have this capacity from his birth. George Li plays as naturally as other people breathe.

The final fuga, notoriously difficult, was played with ease as everything would happen out of joy and dance.

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The Piano Sonata in B minor by Franz Liszt, generally considered to be among the most difficult piano pieces ever written, was completed in 1853 and published in 1854 bearing a dedication to Robert Schumann. Much to the annoyance of the composer it didn’t attract any attention either from Schumann’s wife, the well known pianist Clara Wieck, nor from their common friend Johannes Brahms. Finally it was the student of Liszt, Hans von Bülow who premiered it. Today no trace remains of those first performances, maybe with some tiny exceptions like the piano rolls recorded by Liszt’s students permitting us a glimpse into a world of interpretation completely different from ours.

It is maybe wrong to consider it the only sonata he had written. As Liszt himself says his Dante sonata, written some 20 years before, despite its original title Fantasia quasi una sonata, is a real sonata, maybe more so than the B minor sonata we have listened to in this recital. Both of these extremely virtuosistic pieces are one movement sonatas, once again nothing new at this time, where the model of 3 movement sonatas was slowly disappearing. Again both sonatas have in common the uncertainty of supposed programmatic content: scholars have seen in both the representation of Faust, autobiographical description or even statement of God, Man, Serpent, Adam and Eve. As usual Liszt preferred to stay silent — probably rightly so. The unspectacular ending, so different of what used to be the virtuoso’s need for an applause-harvesting storm of chords, is a last minute choice. The composer with his red pencil simply crossed out the last furious bars. [See image of the manuscript ‘s final page below.]

Change of mind: Final page of Liszt’s “Piano Sonata in B minor.”

It took a long time for the sonata to become frequently used in concert repertoire, because of its technical difficulty and negative initial reception, but it has now hundreds of excellent recordings by the best pianists worldwide. So it is rather impossible to establish a “perfect” rendering.

But let’s consider the two extreme forms of playing it. The German pianist Ludwig Hoffman recorded it in 1977: a wild, hyperbolic and hyper romantic version lasting only 24 minutes.

On the other side the Croatian pianist Ivo Pogorelich in a rendering considered by many on the brink of a parody, lasting exactly the double, full 48 minutes. In the middle of this field maybe the incredible version of Sviatoslav Richter is still my favorite.

George Li played it using very impressive fortissimo “quasi orchestral” sound, never banging down the chords only for sake of acting loudly. The two microphones, placed in a right distance to the piano and not as it often happens put inside the piano, helped to create a sound of great beauty.

Anyhow, what served Mr. Li so well in Beethoven, a certain classical restraint, was a little less adequate in Liszt. What I missed in some way was a convinced moment of surprise. All the transitions flow so logically – accellerandi and crescendi followed a certain predictable pattern – which after a while created in the listener a lulling sense of deja vu. Here maybe a certain space of future development could be used, specially in such a revolutionary work of piano literature, where more than one detail invites the interpreter to use a more unusual, daring approach. This could be applicable in the field of agogics, but also in dynamics. Pianist George Li certainly has all the abilities to do so without problems.

I noticed some extensive use of left pedal, which probably was utilized in a tentative to create a much wider array of colors. Why not, this could be a way. What I liked a bit less was the annoying movement of his left leg moving constantly right and left without reason. Maybe it would be better to get rid of such a habit before it becomes constant.

All in all the recital can be considered a success. Probably after this pandemic situation ends pianist George Li will find all doors open. He certainly deserves it. ■

Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.