2020 Advanced Piano Student Recital Review

Junliang Li, Student of Mikhail Volchok

By Melinda Baird, Levine Piano Faculty

Junliang Li began studying piano at age 8, and made his debut performance when he was 11 at the Shanghai Culture Square Music Hall, which was met with great success. Junliang began studying at Levine Music in 2017. In November of the same year, Junliang was chosen as the recipient of the 2017 National Chamber Ensemble Outstanding Achievement Young Artist Award, and won the Marlin-Engel piano competition in April 2018. In 2019, Junliang performed at the Dutch Embassy, the Austrian Embassy, and the John F. Kennedy Center. Besides piano performance, Junliang also studies music theory, music history and chamber music at Levine. He is passionate about producing electronic music as well.

Partita in B-flat Major, No. 1                                                   Johann Sebastian Bach
Sonata in D Major, Op. 28 “Pastoral”                                   Ludwig van Beethoven
Les cloches de Genève from Années de pèlerinage      Franz Liszt
Prelude in E-flat Major, Op. 23 No. 6                                   Sergei Rachmaninov
Suggestion Diabolique, Op. 4 No. 4                                   Sergei Prokofiev

Young Junliang (Peter) Li, despite the restrictions and setbacks of COVID-19, presented a brilliant Advanced Recital, full of color and variety. This capstone event should have been played to a full audience on Levine’s Steinway D in the Lang Recital Hall. Instead, Peter put all his musical passion and dedication into a performance recorded from his own living room. His interpretations of Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev were well studied, sensitive, and detailed.

Peter chose Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata, Opus 28 (most likely named such by Beethoven’s publisher, not the composer himself). His opening scene was indeed pastoral: calm and peaceful. Stormy passages were appropriately thunderous, and his Scherzo playfulness captured the duality of Beethoven’s ‘Sturm and Drang’ nature. The Andante felt a little hasty, making it difficult to capture the gravity this movement requires, but Peter brought the scene full circle with the last finale’s gorgeously shaped Schubertian harmonies.

Next stop in our musical journey was Switzerland, for the last selection in Franz Liszt’s Swiss Book, from Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). This gorgeous nocturne “Les cloches de Genève”(The Bells of Geneva) begins with the Byron quote, “I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me”. Peter certainly portrays not only the grandeur of Liszt’s Wagnerian harmonies, but the reverence of his religious undertones. While feeling great respect for his technical prowess and sensitive phrasing, I could have used even more melodic sweep. This felt careful. I would love to hear him play the ‘bells” in ten years, after studying the B minor Sonata, the Italian book, and other works by this iconic composer.

I found the choice of the E flat Prelude of Rachmaninov an interesting decision. Peter certainly has the technical power to play one of the more bombastic Preludes. Yet he chose this intimate, lyrical gem, and it is easy to see why. His playing is sensitive, personal. His left hand meandering lines were so lovingly and tenderly shaped it was easy to get lost in them. Rachminov’s music is thick, and making decisions about what to feature is difficult. In this Prelude I would welcome a more singing right hand. Rachmaninov composed many songs for the voice; this is a song for the piano.

For his final selection, Peter brought us Sergei Prokofiev’s Suggestion Diabolique, the ghoulishly demonic final movement of the 1908 Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 4. His playing was accurate and rhythmically relentless—an important fingerprint of Prokofiev’s style. While he aptly captured Prokofiev’s witty sarcasm, the satanic aggression seemed a little tame, and lacked the edgy darkness that may come with more reckless abandon.

The crowning achievement of this monumental program came early, with Peter’s sensitive, lyrical and poignantly beautiful Bach Partita. No voices bumped. No subjects were left unattended. Every entrance was carefully planned, scrupulously layered, and deliciously voiced. Terraces were clear, delineated, without being harsh. Here he shows an ease and naturalness, as he builds ideas without effort or heaviness. Can Bach be transferred from the intended harpsichord, to the modern piano? The answer in Peter’s interpretation is a resounding “yes”. His mature playing shows the dedication of not only Peter’s careful study, but of the direction of his master teacher, Mikhail Volchok. We can see clearly how the coveted Leipzig prize was bestowed on Misha, years ago, as Peter carries on his teacher’s legacy. How appropriate that playing Bach, the acknowledged fountainhead for composers ancient and modern, has become Peter’s greatest strength. What more could a young pianist want to master?