Following his debut with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) last month, whose audience was limited to the beneficiaries of the annual All San Francisco Concert, pianist George Li returned to Davies Symphony Hall last night, this time performing a solo recital for the general audience of the SFS Great Performers Series. As had been observed a week ago, he performed a program that was almost entirely identical to the contents of his debut album for Warner Classics entitled Live at the Mariinsky. The tracks on that album were strong on technique but with little attention to rhetoric. Sadly, things were not much different last night except that one could now experience Li’s technique with the eyes as much as with the ears. Indeed, there seemed to be times when attention to appearance went as far as to overrule the priority of the listening experience.
It was only during a few rare moments of quietude that Li could get beyond tightly coupling the visual to the auditory and get down to the fundamentals of making music for the attentive listener. Ironically, the source for that quietude was Franz Liszt, who probably set the bar for showboating in his day. He played the third (in the key of D-flat major) of the six pieces that Liszt called “Consolations.” These were published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1850, the year after the year of the death of Frédéric Chopin; and, as Scott Foglesong observed in his notes for the program book, they can easily be taken as an homage to Chopin with particular attention to his nocturnes. Li seemed to acknowledge that “nocturnal connection,” serving up a serene reading that resisted any temptation to let the emotions surge. His first encore made it clear that his sensitivity to Liszt’s “Consolation” was not a mere flash in the pan. He brought the same serenity to Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice.
The rest of the evening, alas, was all about spectacle at its most flamboyant. It its most extreme, this involved trying to out-Liszt Liszt by honoring the “Cadenza ad libitum” specified before the Prestissimo coda of the second (in C-sharp minor) of that composer’s Hungarian rhapsodies. The extremes in both duration and excessive embellishment brought to mind Miles Davis’ caustic remark to John Coltrane about remembering to take his saxophone out of his mouth. As to Liszt’s own notes, Li’s rapid-fire execution tended to reduce them to a blur, almost as if personal display meant more than giving a credible account of the marks the composer had put on paper.
The Liszt selections were preceded by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 42 set of variations on a theme mistakenly attributed to Arcangelo Corelli. Rachmaninoff composed this piano solo in 1931 after having lived in the United States for over a decade building a reputation primarily as a performer. One might take the piece as a “warm-up” for the composition of the much better known Opus 43, the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which was composed in 1934.
The actual theme of Opus 42 is the Spanish “Folia,” which is little more than a few measures of chord progression. This allowed Rachmaninoff ample opportunity to “rhapsodize” in Opus 42; and his departures “from the mark” are frequently astonishing, if not downright outrageous. Nevertheless, Opus 42 lacks the sense of an overall journey that Rachmaninoff would subsequently refine for Opus 43 without short-changing some of those more remote approaches to variation.
Unfortunately, neither text nor context seemed to matter very much to Li. It was all about getting out all of the notes with the only rhetorical stance being one of strident assertion. The visual spectacle of “man at work” seemed to carry more rhetorical weight than the music itself, leaving the impression that Li viewed Rachmaninoff as being little more than Liszt on an overdose of steroids.
The first half of the program was devoted to sonatas by Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. Haydn opened the program with his Hoboken XVI/32 sonata in B-flat minor, which was followed by Beethoven’s Opus 57 (“Appassionata”) sonata in F minor. The way in which Li hammered out both of these pieces almost created the illusion that the two sonatas were long-lost brothers. The only real difference was that Beethoven had more notes on the page. In many respects, however, Haydn was the greater loser, since Li never seemed to grasp how many of the phrases in that sonata were sustained through bubbling undercurrents of wit (a wit that was not entirely absent from Opus 57, not that Li ever suggested this to the listener).
If Li’s first encore was one of the high points of the evening, his second went back to business as usual. He closed out with Vladimir Horowitz’ set of variations on the Gypsy Dance scene from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. Horowitz composed this as a show-stopping spectacle when he was just beginning to concertize in the Twenties; and he was still playing it at the end of his career (although any attempt at a score seems to have gone through at least five versions). The blatant flamboyance of Horowitz’ technical display was right up Li’s alley, allowing him to leave the stage to a standing ovation from rabid admirers.