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Yundi and the San Francisco Symphony de-romanticise Tchaikovsky April 4, 2011

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
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Davies Symphony Hall

San Francisco, California

Friday April 1st, 2011

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23

Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43

San Francisco Symphony

Herbert Blomstedt Conductor

Yundi Soloist


I had long thought that Tchaikovsky was a pioneer of decadent romanticism.  Many of his melodies have become well-hummed signature tunes of amorous longing in popular music, as in Caterina Valente’s Tonight We Love.

The San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt with soloist Yundi (formerly known as Yundi Li) in the piano concerto number one in B flat minor put paid to that idea for good.

Tall, lanky, with sharp features and a full body of wavy hair, Yundi cuts a dashing figure as a teenage heartthrob.  The standing ovation that followed his performance, I suspect, was due in no small measure to his Korean soap-opera star looks.  That is not to say he is not a competent pianist.  On the contrary, he is very much a technical virtuoso.  Yet I wonder whether underneath the pyrotechnics, the breakneck speed and the fluency in his performance, there was genuine empathy with the emotional intentions of Tchaikovsky in creating the work.

Quite apart from the repressive environment of conservative sexual mores in 19th century Russia, Tchaikovsky suffered traumatic ups and downs in his emotional life.  After being jilted in an infatuation with the soprano Désirée Artôt, his marriage to Antonina Miliukova drove him to the brink of nervous breakdown.  These disastrous experiences with the opposite sex led to a slow coming to terms with his homosexuality: “…nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature,” as he wrote in a letter to his brother Anatoly.

Some commentators have surmised that Tchaikovsky secretly coded Artôt’s name into the concerto.  Whether or not this conjecture has any merit, the work effuses unmistakable passion.  The melodic progression rises and falls like white foam in a stormy sea, straining to break out as Dr. Bruce Banner does to his clothes when he turns into the green giant in The Incredible Hulk.

In his focus on the technical challenges of the concerto, Yundi glossed over the emotional contours of the work, leaving the audience yearning for a more intimate connection with the composer.  His technical virtuosity was like a sheet of steel over which the emotional hot water of the work flowed.  The heat was quickly cooled, and there was no attachment.

The orchestral accompaniment was compartmentalised, with each section executing its part competently but hardly welding into a cohesive whole.  The tone was jagged, sometimes even strident, and the colour was lacklustre.  The rhythm was at times inappropriately pointed.  I know something was awry when I heard, although for only a fleeting moment, snippets of a Mozart divertimento in the third movement.

I mustn’t be too harsh, for Yundi made his name as an interpreter of Chopin.  His performance in the Carnegie Hall of Chopin and Mussorgsky last year was certainly much more sensitive.  Perhaps he is better at handling muted hankering than explosive outbursts.

Compared with Tchaikovsky’s concerto, Sibelius’ symphony number 2 is more measured with structural clarity.  The work seems to trace the germination of a small idea into triumphant maturity.  As if taking us on a tour of a forest in Finland, with thick trees allowing only small streams of light at a time, the elusive melodic machinations stretch forth and withdraw in a tug-of-war with our imagination.

Blomstedt launched into the tame and understated opening theme of thirds with a full frontal assault, and throughout the work there was a lack of contrast in intensity between the soft and loud passages.  Like a shy young debutante, the best of the thematic material in the symphony needs to be teased out gradually.  Blomstedt didn’t seem too interested in the subtlety.

The orchestra did excel in the passages where frenzied trills on the strings gave way to a single statement in the woodwinds, the oboe in the second movement and the bassoon in the third.  In addition to the horns and brass providing the impetus that frog-marched the melody into triumph, the strings also handled the suspended development of the theme in the last movement with suitable restraint, inveigling it gradually into full bloom.

The San Francisco Symphony dedicated its concert to victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Opening the concert, conductor Herbert Blomstedt led the orchestra in Japan’s national anthem.  This extra-curricular addition was probably the work I could least find fault with, on account mainly of its unfamiliarity.

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