This disc caught my eye, for one attractive reason, and provoked anticipatory reservations at the same time.
Having just added Yundi Li's prior concerto album to my shelves, I was happily surprised to find he had released another concerto recording, soon upon the heels of that first success. Catching sight of conductor Seiji Ozawa as leader, I paused a bit. I have never been a fan of his complete Prokofiev symphonies with the Berlin PO, and although I do like some of Ozawa's releases, I find him disappointing at times. He often seems content to skate on the beautiful surfaces of the music, resisting deeper involvements and deeper insights. His mastery sounds too slick to my ears in some past recordings, so I wasn't going to anticipate too much under him even with Yundi Li at the keyboard.
Suffice it to say that this release is worth having, but maybe not the undisputed top-notch Great Recording of the Century that the marketing departments might have been casting in their business mix.
For one thing, the Prokofiev competition is pretty strong. The second piano concerto has already been seriously well-served by Ashkenazy, Demidenko, Kun Woo Paik, Horacio Gutierrez, Toradze, Igor Ardasev, Viktor Krainev, Michel Beroff, and John Browning. On the conducting side, Ozawa has to compete with the likes of Neeme Jarvi, Previn, Masur, Antoni Wit, Lazarev, Dimitri Kitaenko, the superstar Gergiev, Erich Leinsdorf, and the brilliant but unknown Leos Svarosky.
Any of these alternative recordings will do just fine, probably. So it is high marks for Yundi Li to fit in so well with this challenging field of pre-existing musical excellence. He places the second Prokofiev, deftly, smack dab in the early twentieth century's post-wars modernity, right in the continuum with Bartok and Ravel and Stravinsky. Unlike Ozawa's work with Berlin in the complete symphonies set, the conductor at least doesn't work against Yundi Li and the orchestra this time out, which is saying something in this case, considering the sappy failure of the symphonies set.
Audience applause at the end of the Prokofiev put me on alert that this performance was recorded live, and that, in retrospect, raises its class marks. I still could do without live audience applause in most instances.
Then we get to the Ravel g minor concerto. Here Yundi Li does everything just right. Ozawa is just a tad less apt than his younger self, leading a French band to accompany Alexis Weissenberg in a stunning g minor outing. The real gem of this Ravel is the middle movement, a devilish tightrope act to get just right. Tempo, touch, and Olympian simplicities are needed, recalling Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and guess what? Yundi Li compels in this middle movement. By the frisky, jazz-inflected third, all the players are hi jinks acrobats wearing Gene Kelly top hat and tails.
As the Ravel ends, no audience applause, thank goodness. Neither of these recordings is going to brashly supplant the available alternatives, but Yundi Li is good enough to fit in with the best of the available past artistic and musical company. And that is saying quite a lot, actually. Recommended, as a first recording, or an umpteenth of this repertoire.