Balancing Emotion and Logic: Yundi Li

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
July 9, 2013
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Yundi Li was just 18 years old when he became the first Chinese pianist to win first prize at the prestigious International Chopin Competition. He admits Chopin is his favorite composer — he loves the poetry of Chopin's music. Now however, at age 30, he's says it's time to share the romance of Beethoven. Yundi Li has been touring the globe, performing three of Beethoven's most popular piano sonatas, and he's just released his first Beethoven recording.

"I'm very excited to record Beethoven's most popular sonatas — Pathetique, Moonlight and Appassionata," Yundi Li enthuses. "And they are quite different, I think, with Chopin's music and also with the Romantic temperament, there is a big difference. The dynamic structure is totally different. But I feel very excited for this moment, I mean this year. I tour around the world to play Beethoven's music and it gives me a lot of exciting moments and experience. I think it is the time to play Beethoven's music."

Beethoven's Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, the Pathetique Sonata, was composed in 1798 at the high point of the composer's early period. The importance of this work is sometimes overshadowed by its popularity. Unlike Beethoven's earlier sonatas this one was not intended to be performed on the harpsichord. Yundi Li takes full advantage of the dynamic range, the explosive chords, and the dramatic coloring in this sonata. "The sonata is very passionate and also very powerful," says Yundi. "You need the control and also you need to share the passion and a lot of the energy. I want to show the balance, emotion and the logic combined together."

"Pathetique, the second movement... it's kind of a memory and very grand. Like sometimes you maybe have experienced in France and Germany. I used to take the train to the city and the next city and you see a lot of Germany - the landscape is very grand. But also sometimes (it) reminds me of the mountains, and the people, who are friendly and understanding. So that kind of feeling, it's very warm, it's very deep."

The Moonlight sonata is Beethoven's most popular work in the genre primarily because of the gorgeous -opening movement. Yundi Li puts his own signature on this sonata by giving it plenty of room to breathe especially at that point. "The Moonlight sonata is the most, I think, romantic melody, but also I want to take more time when you play the first movement. If the concert hall is very rich, then you can take it even slower. The color, I think, is most important for the Moonlight sonata, the first movement."

The final movement is filled with technical pyrotechnics. Yundi Li says that in this movement, the composer is struggling with his emotions, almost fighting with himself as he comes to terms with his pending deafness.

As far as Beethoven was concerned, his best sonata was the Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, known as the Appassionata. To pull off a spontaneous performance of this challenging work requires additional focus. According to Yundi Li, "Sometimes you need to concentrate, you need to relax, but other times it's very simple." Simple or not, these three sonatas have always been Beethoven's most popular, with performers and audiences. Now Yundi Li brings his sparkling technique and fluidity at the keyboard to these ever-popular works.

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