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Melancholie / Zhenni Li

Release Date: 08/17/2018
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30097
Composer:  Arthur Vincent Lourié ,  Robert Schumann ,  Béla Bartók Performer:  Zhenni Li-Cohen

Zhenni Li’s riveting personality and passionate performances have brought audiences to their feet around the world. She has been hailed as a "magnetic pianist--with fire and poetry" by music critic David Dubal and for her "big, gorgeous tone and a mesmerizing touch" by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Album Credits:
Recorded October 30, 2017 & January 4, 2018 at Steinway Hall, New York City.
Producer: Jon Feidner
Engineer: Lauren Sturm
Editing: Kazumi Umeda
Production Assistant: Renée Oakford
Mixing and Mastering: Daniel Shores

Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Design: Cover to
Read more Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo
Piano Technician: Lauren Sturm
Piano: Steinway Model D #597590 (New York)
Photo of Zhenni Li: Brent Calis

Young pianist Zhenni Li presents, here, a fascinating recital by two 20th century composers and one famous name from the 19th. Although I was pretty familiar with Arthur Lourié’s music, the Préludes fragiles, which was his Op. 1, were new to me. The music certainly lives up to the album’s title; the music has a melancholy Russian feel to it; yet already one can hear Lourié reaching for a new and different style, based partly on Scriabin and partly on such late Russian romantics as Medtner and Rachmaninov.

Li is an extremely expressive artist. She understands not merely the notes on the page but how they should progress, one following the other, to make coherent musical statements. Thus even in pieces that have a lot of “space” between the notes (such as the third of Lourié’s five preludes), she manages to “lead” the ear to connect the phrasing and complete the musical structure. This is a very high level of artistry, and although I was not (to be honest) entirely fond of each of the preludes, I was intrigued enough to keep listening due to her phrasing and personal involvement in the music.

Her treatment of Schumann’s first piano sonata is also quite sensitive and rather different in phrasing from the recorded performances of Barbara Nissman and Shura Cherkassky (two of my favorite pianists). She presents us with a sort of smoldering undercurrent that reaches deep inside the notes. It’s hard to explain; you just have to hear it, particularly in the quick second movement where surface glibness is all that most modern keyboard performers give us. In her hands, this movement becomes almost like a fantasy in which the composer’s mind wanders through various moods and images, portrayed vividly by this gifted and imaginative artist. In the scherzo, she emphasizes the odd, lopsided rhythm in a way I’ve never heard before, and in the finale she also induces a bit of deconstruction to emphasize the “melancholy” feel of the music over its structure.

Likewise, Bartók’s Elegies are played in a similar style. This may not be the way the composer conceived them, but as long as you are listening to Li play them this way, they make perfect sense.

All in all, a fascinating album, one that points to an artist with a deep emotional commitment to the music she is playing.

-- Lynn René Bayley, Art Music Lounge

Chinese-born pianist Zhenni Li graduated from the Juilliard School and jumped out from the pack with several major competition victories. This is her debut album, released on the Steinway & Sons label in 2018, and it demonstrates further promise. Steinway has attempted to re-create recital ideas from the golden age of pianism, and at first glance Mélancholie might seem to fit the pattern with its lightly lyrical theme. But all is not quite as it seems. The program does begin with pieces that might seem to belong to a genteel recital of the 1910s or 1920s, Arthur Vincent Lourié's Préludes fragiles, Op. 1. Louríe was not American or French but Russian (born Naum Izrailevich Luria), and these five movements seem innocently late Romantic at first. Then, when you listen to them more closely, they violate the pattern in all kinds of ways. Sample the second piece, Calme, pas vite, which puts various forms of rhythmic pressure on its simple left-hand figure. They're attractive pieces, not often played, and even better is the way Li gets them to grow into pieces that decidedly would not seem to belong to a recital entitled Mélancholie: the Schumann Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 11, and Bartók's Two Elegies, Op. 8b. From the Schumann in this context Li extracts an interpretation that puts unusual emphasis on the finale as the whole work seems to gather energy. The Bartók pieces too, one might not classify as melancholy even if they are Elégies. They feature sinuous chromatic lines of the kind Bartók would exploit later in the middle of his career, and they generally feel abstract rather than melancholy. But Li recontextualizes them effectively. It's an impressive program, both accessible and highly original. As for the sound engineering, New York's Steinway Hall is proving itself to be one of the Western Hemisphere's premier venues acoustically.

-- AllMusic Guide

Zhenni Li’s new Steinway release is a bolt from the blue. Li holds bachelor and master’s degrees from Juilliard, where she worked with Seymour Lipkin and Joseph Kalichstein. She continued postgraduate studies with Peter Frankl at Yale and with Stéphane Lemelin at McGill. Her beautiful sound is captured in full dimension and depth in this expertly engineered recording.

Li leaves no detail of Schumann’s F sharp minor Sonata unattended. The minute scrutiny brought to every element of the score would, in other hands, fragment and shatter the piece. Yet somehow, by dint of passionate identification and sheer force of will, Li pulls it off. Her extravagant and pervasive rubato, which occasionally risks derailing everything she sets in motion, strikes nonetheless as so heartfelt and intrinsic to her emotional response to the music as to be indisputable. There are moments when you wish for more than just a few consecutive measures of steady pulse, but then Li’s torrents of voluptuous sound sweep away any reservation. I am unprepared to venture how this interpretative approach might fare when applied to any other Romantic sonata, but the mercurial landscape of Schumann’s Op 11 is able to encompass it, and Li emerges, if not triumphant, at least thoroughly persuasive.

Translating the titles of Bartók’s Op 8b as either the Latinate ‘elegy’ or the Middle English-derived ‘dirge’ is misleading. The original Hungarian sírato is something closer to ‘keening at graveside’. In any case, Bartók’s precise notation of these folk-inspired works seems the antithesis of the fulsome Scriabinesque melange of Li’s conception. Arthur Lourié’s 1910 Preludes, on the other hand, strike just the right note of elusive piquancy.

Li impresses as an artist of tremendous conviction, who fascinates even as she provokes. Time will tell.

-- Gramophone Read less