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In this unoriginal programme, the Chopin Ballades are rendered with appealing refinement and restraint, a welcome return to form for Yundi Li, the Chinese pianist who at age 18 in 2000 won the 14th International Chopin Piano Competition. Since then, career upheavals may have caused some over-languid recordings of major repertoire with less-than-ideally matched conductors. By contrast, this solo recital has a winning simplicity and an acceptance of quietness, especially welcome in such very familiar works as the Second Ballade. If daintiness remains a pitfall in the Third Ballade, Yundi avoids some other flaws that have hampered his past recordings.

The First and Fourth Ballades may err in being too inward-looking. Part of the appeal of these works in the hands of such pianists as Alfred Cortot, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Ivan Moravec, Murray Perahia and others is their direct communicativeness, which Yundi’s overly shy approach sometimes discounts.

Yundi’s Berceuse is an effective cradle song that doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfall of being actually soporific. By contrast, his Mazurkas sound rather harried, stressed, and impatient. Unlike an Olympian approach of confidence and assurance to the Mazurkas such as Arthur Rubinstein’s, Yundi delivers these works with an engaging sense of questioning and doubt, auguring well for his future artistic development. A next step might be recording repertoire that has not been played by so many great pianists, providing unbeatable competition. Championing less-played works of value might confer upon Yundi a more individual artistic identity.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing