“So may the outward shows be least themselves. The world is still deceived with ornament.” Bassanio’s advice in The Merchant of Venice rings as true now as then. Never having had the pleasure of hearing Yundi before, I had assumed this young and (judging from the programme photo) hip Chinese man was going to be another technically proficient, demonstrative pianist, along the lines of his compatriot Lang Lang. However, nothing could be further from the mark. Instead he showed himself to be poetic and controlled, with a seeming distaste for any sort of technical display of any kind.

Yundi © Uli Weber | DG / Mercury Classics
© Uli Weber | DG / Mercury Classics

Having garnered first prize in the prestigious Chopin Piano Competition at the tender age of 18, he has been marketed as a Chopin specialist with an extensive, young fan base more associated with pop musicians than pianists. Chopin is what sells (Yundi’s languid, handsome profile helps too) and Chopin is what Yundi gives his fawning public. While I dearly love this Polish composer, one can have a surfeit of Chopin for one evening. I longed for a meaty Beethoven sonata or a barbaric Prokofiev piece, something to give the programme a bit of bite and provided much-needed contrast for the refined harmonies of Chopin.

The Ballades of the first half suffered very mixed fortunes alternating between fine, poetic melodic moments and a controlled, risk-averse approach to the virtuosic sections. He took the opening sweep of Ballade no. 1 in G minor surprisingly slowly, sounding more self-indulgent than profound. The sweet tone of his soft playing and finely graded left hand accompaniment in the gentler sections that followed soon swept away these misgivings as he spun the delicate thread of melody with spine-tingling effect. The octaves in the glorious warm A major section were bordering on the slow as if he were afraid to take risks. This impression became ever more pronounced with the waltz-like E flat major section sounding turgid until he suddenly sped off without the slightest warning as if he had just stepped on the accelerator of a powerful car a little too heavily. The Coda suffered from excessive control until a lapse in memory or nerves forced him to invent several bars of music before landing decisively on the tonic.

The F major Ballade was perhaps the most convincing piece of the first half, with its delicious lilting tune interspersed with explosive A minor passages. Here Yundi seemed most at home with the introverted pastoral moments, concentrating on eliciting a golden sound from the piano. Similarly, in the lilting moments of the A flat major Ballade he seemed content to let the beauty of the music speak for itself. It was odd that Yundi could magically allow arpeggios to float into the ether at the beginning or delicately shape the inner voices and yet lack the spontaneity to allow the climax at the end to ebb and flow as the waves of passion suggested.

Haunting in its beauty, Yundi stretched out the beguiling opening melody of the Ballade no. 4 in F minor. The errors which followed in the enharmonic E major section caused ripples of unease with a dread of more mistakes to come. However, he held it together and the D flat major section towards the end really shimmered leading to the big chords for the coda. Unfortunately, premature applause ruined the dramatic tension just before the coda, undermining the savage shock of the coda itself which was ably dispatched.

The 24 Preludes Op.28 were of a much higher standard altogether. Performing like a new man, Yundi gave a rippling account of the G major while the filigree of the C sharp minor was scintillating. And if anyone doubted his technical prowess after the first half, the preludes in G sharp minor, B flat minor and D minor proved that he possesses a formidable technique. There was great charm to nos. 11 and 17 and delicacy to the penultimate in F major. At times, as in the famous E minor no. 4, Yundi concentrated excessively on beauty of tone to the expense of a more heartfelt approach as if he had taken Oscar Wilde’s quip a little too much to heart – “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing”.