from the Amazon.com Web page for the recording being discussed
Early in October of 2017, pianist George Li, then 21 years old, made his recording debut on Warner Classics with an album entitled Live at the Mariinsky. This took place not long after he had made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) as soloist in the annual All San Francisco Concert. Shortly after the album release, Li returned to Davies Symphony Hall to give a solo recital in the SFS Great Performers Series, presenting a program that was almost entirely identical to the contents of his Warner album. Both in performance and on recording, the attentive listener could appreciate Li’s solid command of technique, which clearly justified his winning the silver medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition that took place in Moscow in 2015.
Nevertheless, performance is not all about technique. Whatever the pianist happens to be playing, in the absence of a compelling rhetorical stance, those listeners that really pay attention are likely to revert to their favorite past recordings. The recordings of Li at the Mariinsky never found that rhetorical stance, and it was no surprise that his performance at Davies fared no better.
After an interval slightly longer than two years, Warner released its second George Li album. This is his first concerto album; and the concerto is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) in B-flat minor. He performs with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. The album is then “fleshed out” with three solo compositions by Franz Liszt. The first two come from the Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) collection, “Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” (the fountains of the Villa D’Este, from the “Third Year”), and “Sonetto 104 del Petrarca” (Petrarch’s Sonnet 104, from the “Second Year”). The album then concludes with “Réminiscences de Don Juan,” a highly demanding fantasy based on themes from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 opera Don Giovanni.
There is little evidence of growth between these two recordings. Li’s technique is still powerfully convincing; and, when it come to jumping through fiery hoops, the demands imposed by Tchaikovsky and Liszt definitely complement each other. Nevertheless, any sense that rhetoric needs to be part of the equation is still lacking; and that lack is likely not to sit well with the many listeners that have access to any number of resources for listening to all four of these selections played with an expressiveness that, even on a recording, still makes one sit up and listen.
Mind you, I write from the perspective of one who has lost count of the number of performances of the Tchaikovsky concerto I have experienced. I am not sure how many of the Liszt pieces I have heard in recital, but I definitely have preferences for specific recordings that manage to pique my attention every time I return to them. In that context I have to wonder just what sort of a listener Li is. It would not surprise me to learn that his keen analytic mind can pick up technical subtleties in a recorded performance that would probably elude my own attention, but what about the contexts in which those subtleties are embedded? The nature of the context frames the nature of the music itself; and, in the absence of a frame that seizes attention and maintains a solid grip, the serious listener may just as well go back to his/her favorite recordings.