This Friday (October 6) Warner Classics will release the debut album of newly-signed pianist George Li. Li, who is now 21 years old, distinguished himself in 2015 as the winner of the silver medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. His debut recording comes from a recital he gave one year later at the Mariinsky Concert Hall in Saint Petersburg. As usual, this album is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.
The program for that recital reflects what many of us would expect from a competition winner. Li opens with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XVI/32 sonata in B minor, after which he launches into Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 35 (“Funeral March”) sonata in B-flat minor. The major work on the second half of the recital is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 42 set of variations. Rachmaninoff gave this piece the title “Variations on a Theme of Corelli;” but by now it is pretty well known that the theme is the Spanish “Folia,” for which Arcangelo Corelli had composed 23 variations of his own in D minor for the twelfth and last of the violin sonatas collected for his Opus 5. The final selections are by Franz Liszt, the third (in the key of D-Flat major) of his “Consolation” compositions and the second (in C-sharp minor) of the Hungarian rhapsodies.
For those who follow pianists closely, this is a program that does not really offer surprises. Even the Haydn sonata as a comfortable-old-shoe feeling to it, in spite of the B minor key; and Li never lets that shoe pinch. Indeed, if the program does not raise any eyebrows, neither does Li’s performance. He know how to give each composer his proper due; and there are no grounds for faulting (or even nit-picking) his technique. What is missing is the sort of rhetorical stance that says, “I don’t care how many times you have heard this piece, this time will definitely be worth your attention!” In other words this is an album for comfortably revisiting old favorites but little more than that. That “little” is most evident in a bit of clear improvising that is worked into the Liszt Hungarian rhapsody.
It turns out, however, the San Francisco will be the first stop on an eight-city tour to promote this album. The other cities will be Bellingham, Washington, Vancouver, Canada, Washington, DC, New York, New York (at Carnegie Hall), Evanston Illinois, Rochester, New York, and Santa Monica, California. Here in San Francisco Li will be hosted by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and will offer the first concert in the annual Great Performers series at Davies Symphony Hall. All of the selections from the album will be performed except for the Chopin sonata. It will be replaced by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 57 (“Appassionata”) in F minor. Personally, I believe that one cannot really get to know a pianist from recordings alone; so there is good reason the expect that the album should not set expectations for the performance itself.
This concert will be given Sunday, October 8, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $35 to $69. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Those planning to purchase online should know that the Web page provides an interactive seating chart to facilitate seat selection, but this chart requires that Flash be installed and activated. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The Box Office will also be open two hours prior to the beginning of the concert.