George Li is not a flashy pianist. There are no histrionics, no gurning, no gazing into the middle distance for poetic effect. Instead, the Chinese-American, silver medalist in the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition, quietly gets on with it and lets his pianism do the talking. But in this polished International Piano Series recital at St John’s Smith Square – his London recital debut – that wasn’t always quite enough to allow his personality to blossom.

George Li © Simon Fowler
George Li
© Simon Fowler

His opening Beethoven sonata was purposeful rather than playful, not helped by a Steinway that sported a particularly thunderous bass. Li was at his best in the melodic line in the Allegretto of the Piano Sonata no. 6 in F major, which gradually unfurled like a tendril stretching upwards, gentle and unhurried. The fugal development of the finale busied itself metronomically, but there was more humour to be mined here; Ludwig didn’t always wear a scowl.

Li caught the epic scale of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata well, despite a predominant left-hand in the turbulent opening. He coaxed the tender, probing second theme sensitively before reaching a volcanic dynamic at the movement’s close. Further eruptions burst forth in the Scherzo, phrases sometimes stretched, while the central section in G flat major was spun out rather too slowly. The Funeral March was taken at a steady tread – certainly not as sluggish as Daniil Trifonov’s trudge – but the interlude felt slightly too drawn out for its own good. The miniature finale swirled and rumbled mysteriously before Chopin cuts it dead with his abrupt B flat minor chord flourish.

The best playing came after the interval. Ironically, Rachmaninov’s Variations on a theme of Corelli aren’t based on a theme by Corelli at all, but the melody La folia which the Italian composer employed in one of his violin sonatas. Li stated the theme coolly and then coloured the successive variations upon it imaginatively. The Allegro 5th variation was thumped decisively while the Allegro scherzando 10th fretted with nervous energy. The intermezzo which separates the two groups of variations had an improvisatory character. Galloping towards the home straight, the final three variations were dispatched con brio before Rachmaninov’s subdued coda.

Two contrasting Liszt favourites closed the official programme. The Consolation in D flat major rippled its nostalgic theme winningly, each note perfectly weighted. There were rustic cimbalom effects aplenty in the melancholic lassú section of the Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C sharp minor (the most famous of the 19 Liszt wrote). Li tickled the bell-like tintinnabulations which open the lively friska, the rollicking theme pealing joyously. It was disappointing that Li then chose to play Rachmaninov’s bloated, vulgar cadenza – when Liszt provides all the pyrotechnics you need, it’s akin to throwing a stick of dynamite into the keyboard.

Calm was briefly restored with Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, before Li dazzled the audience with Vladimir Horowitz’s wild fantasy on the Chanson bohème from Carmen, which stamped, teased and pouted in equal measure.