Ang Li, Pianist in Review

Ang Li, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
December 18, 2011

The recent New York recital of Chinese-Canadian pianist Ang Li was billed both as her Weill Recital Hall debut and as a Franz Liszt 200th birthday year celebration entitled “Years of Pilgrimage.” Referring to the masterful suites of Liszt’s, “Années de Pèlerinage,” the program actually included only one work from these sets, “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” from Book III; beyond this selection, the program title was mostly a gentle suggestion of unity for music that also included Liszt transcriptions of Schubert and Wagner and Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 on the first half, and two contemporary Canadian works, plus music of Debussy and Granados on the second half. It was certainly more wide-ranging than other “Liszt celebrations” heard this year – some would even say that some stated connections were rather tenuous – but it did demonstrate that it is hard to find any music not connected to Liszt by “six degrees of separation” or fewer.

It was a wise decision for Ang Li to branch out, as she came to life most with the more modern works on the program. There is no question that Ms. Li has the technical equipment for the rigors of Romantic virtuoso piano music, and her credentials, including numerous accolades and international tours, point to her mastery and versatility; her temperament, on the other hand, seemed a better fit for works by the non-Romantics. She showed a particular affinity for Debussy’s timbres through her finely controlled touch in “Brouillards” (“Mists”), while Minstrels had just the right bumptious feeling. “Feux d’artifice” (“Fireworks”) closed the group of three Debussy Preludes with brilliance, leaving one wondering whether an impressionistic theme program can be far behind in his upcoming 150th anniversary.

Prior to Debussy, we heard the US Premiere of  “Es ist genug!” (2007) by Jérôme Blais (b. 1965). An intriguing, partly improvisatory work, it incorporates into a dreamlike tonal backdrop various fragments of music by J. S. Bach, as representative of the sacred in this composer’s otherwise atheistic view. One heard, among other fragments, bits of Bach’s D Major Prelude (WTC, Book II) and the B-flat Partita with bits of the title Chorale. What could have resembled (and at times approached) an Ivesian dream of Juilliard’s practice floor before a Bach recital was held together powerfully in Ms. Li’s inspired and focused conception. The composer was present to speak and receive applause, as was Jared Miller (b. 1988) whose “Souvenirs d’Europe” (2011) were given a persuasive account. Prompted by recent travels in Europe, Mr. Miller’s three pieces suggested fountains (“Fontaines”), the cathedral of Notre Dame (“Origines”), and a Spanish tourist scene (“¡La Rambla!”). Kinship with Liszt stopped at the travel-themed title, though, as these were in a new, individual tonal language (perhaps with the exception of “Origines” which struck one as resembling Messiaen – appropriately enough, given the inspiration). Miller writes brilliantly for the piano and shows remarkable accomplishment for one so young. He was quite fortunate, one must add, to have a pianist as skilled as Ms. Li to perform his music.

Also very successful was the Granados Allegro de Concierto, which closed the program. The end of the program’s westward travel arc concluding in sunny Spain, it seemed to warm the musical temperature of things, in phrasing and timbre, where the opening Liszt half had not.

The opening work, the Wagner-Liszt transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod had plunged the audience into high drama perhaps too suddenly, and the three Schubert-Liszt song transcriptions (“Wohin?”, “Der Müller und der Bach,” and “Gretchen am Spinnrade”) were well done, but felt somehow disengaged. Liszt’s “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” was technically stunning (and a beautiful precedent for the Jared Miller fountains), but even the octave fusillades in the Ballade No. 2 in B minor, though confidently executed, seemed to leave performer and audience a bit cold.

All in all, I look forward to hearing Ms. Li again in ever more personally expressive playing. Encores of a Chinese folk song (Chen Peixun’s “Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake”) and Alexina Louie’s “Memories In An Ancient Garden” showed where some of that more personal involvement might lead.