Yundi Li rocks.
No, that's not right.
Let me rephrase that.
YUNDI LI ROCKS
It was by far the best Pictures I have ever heard. I was sitting at the edge of my seat, holding my breath and gripping the arm-rest for dear life.
Now, until winning the Chopin competition, aged 18, Xiao Yun had never studied in the West, or even outside of China; so much for the old saw, then -- the vaguely Eco-Steinerian hogwash so beloved of pianists in western music schools -- that Asian pianists are dull because they don't understand the music (have not read the Greeks, don't personally know Jesus, whatever). In truth, many Asian pianists are dull (we shall not name any names); but so are most pianists world over; and I have personally known a few Asian pianists who weren't dull at all. (And even slept with one: she played a real mean Piano, Percussion and Celesta).
Now Xiao Yun stands proof for all to see the hogwashness of hogwash.
By the usual vagaries of concert-going (whereby the front row seats get blocked out to sponsors who then do not bother to turn up), I spent the first half sitting in the third row -- the only seats available in the whole house at the time I made the booking. And it was naaas-tea: O Grande Auditorio proved to be, in fact, O Grande Ospedale -- bird flu or something (pooh-leaze, if you can't stop yourself from coughing, hacking and snorting stay at home and give your ticket to someone who can). Besides, it seems, the locals must keep cats (here, "a common parasite found in cats may be affecting human behavior on a mass scale", read it and have your cat put to sleep now): there was so much fidgeting, twitching, program dropping, notebook consulting, purse-innards inspecting, and just plain wheezing, I could not concentrate at all.
In the third row, damn it. What did the poor wretches in row 29 get out of the concert, I have no idea.
But then, for second half, I snuck (sp?) into one of those VIP-abandoned seats; and the experience was incredible; best second half for many years; heaven and hell. You do not just hear the music better -- the sound wave gushing out of the open box hits you right in the face; or see the artists better (the fingers, the beads of sweat, the color in the cheek, the painful concentration, sometimes fear, sometimes delight); you also do not hear or see the audience.
This is what business consultants like to call a win-win situation.
(By the way: the best way to listen to the grand piano is to lie under it while it is being whacked. In college, I had a pianist girlfriend and used to lie under her piano when she played. In time I developed a trick: I went to the music school and simply barged in on one of the practice rooms, asking whoever was in there to let me lie under his or her piano. They almost always did. (Wouldn't you?) The ability to do so is the only thing I miss about my college town. Many years later, my heart skipped a beat when I read a letter of Georges Sand talking about her lying for hours under Frédéric's piano).
Now, onto the (usual) points.
First, lesson one:
If you go to a live concert, get seats in the first row -- whatever they might cost: an arm and a leg, your grandma's hearing-aid, whatever; just do it; or else -- don't bother. Really. I mean it. Just don't.
Second, lesson two:
If you ever wonder why other people do not share your impressions of a concert, well, they must have sat in a different row from you.
The concert is thus a good model for understanding all opinions regarding culture: there are 29 rows in the Gulbenkian plateia (plus Allahu-Akbar only knows how many in the balcao); which means that no more than 1/29 of the audience had the first rate experience. (Less than that in fact: the guy sitting next to me must have been from the sponsors: he kept consulting his watch).
This fact makes it virtually certain that the opinion you are getting from random someone else about a concert -- or a piece of art -- is wholly and completely worthless. (They are just too likely to fall into the 28/29ths cohort).
If you must consult, consult with those who have the time, money and commitment to do it right. Or not at all.
The truth is that art is not just an elite experience; it is an extreme-elite experience, as Nancy Mitford's Love in cold climate shows (in the novel, the aristocrats who own the art works are almost to a man too stoopid to know what they own). It's not that "only 10% know anything about it". Proper art appreciation is measured in parts per billion.
(Like -- three).
Anyway, here is Xiao Yun beating the bejeezus out of Prokof's Number 2. Prokof's Number 2 is some of the most barbarous -- no -- deranged -- stuff ever written for the piano (Bartok's Allegro Barbaro is tame substance by comparison) and on this account it has been rarely played or recorded; ("Er", said Prokof to himself halfway through a movement. "I don't like this tempo. Let's speed up", and sped up but after 12 bars: "Nah, that's too fast! Let's slow down", etc.); but delicate Xiao Yun (note the permed hair-do a la Frédéric -- who else? -- ) serves it up right. (Too bad about the orchestra; Xiao Yun also recorded this work with BerPhilius but no one had thought to pirate that on you tube, so you must buy it online to the get the optimum bang.
Alright, enough talk. Here is Xiao Yun. Knock yourself out:
PS. Alright, so I can't stop. Googling a bit I find that Xiao Yun played the same program in NYC in October, and that the NYT reviewer thought (here) as I did: that the Mazurkas were alright, the Polonaise fine (it was fine, I just don't love Polonaises, they're too close to home or something), and the Pictures fantastic ("a gripping, boldly conceived account"). Clearly, all great minds do think alike -- provided they have the same input (i.e., sit in the same front row seats, etc.)
(It's nice to read a reviewer one agrees with; especially since most I violently do not).
PPS. The reviewer is right in pointing out technical imperfections in the Pictures. I too have spotted three places where things didin't go exactly right (in one instance even outright wrong). But it is possible -- as paradoxical as that sounds -- to fail technically and yet deliver fantastic music all the same. There is a live Gilels recording -- the Busoni here -- to prove the point; error ridden and absolutely superb.
Greatness isn't possible without superb technique, but it isn't identical with it.