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Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32

It is not often that you catch the congenial, ever-chipper Haydn writing in
a minor key. But minor keys were all the rage in the 1770s, the age of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an age when composers such as C. P. E. Bach sought to elicit powerful, sometimes worrisome emotions from their audiences by means of syncopated rhythms, dramatic pauses, wide melodic leaps, and poignant harmonies in minor keys. And all of these are found in Haydn’s Sonata in B minor of 1776.

The 1770s was also the period in which the harpsichord was gradually giving way to the new fortepiano, precursor of the modern grand, and there is much in this sonata to suggest that it still lingered eagerly on the harpsichord side of things, at least texturally. The kind of writing you fond in the first movement especially is the sort that speaks well on the harpsichord. Moreover, there are no dynamic markings in the score, as you would expect in a piece that aimed to take advantage of the new instrument’s chief virtue: playing piano e forte.

The first movement’s two themes are a study in textural contrasts: the
first spare and austere but amply encrusted with crisp, Baroque-style ornamentation, the second churning with constant 16th-note motion – the very thing the harpsichord is good at. And while this second theme is set in the relative major, its subsequent appearance in the recapitulation is re-set in the minor mode, yet a further sign of the serious tone that pervades this movement.

In place of a slow movement, Haydn offers us a minuet and trio, as vividly contrasting as the first and second themes of the first movement. The minuet is in the major mode, set high in the register, sparkling with trills and astonishing us with melodic leaps as large as a 14th. The trio is in the minor mode, set low, and grinds away in constant 16th-note motion, outlining scalar stepwise motion throughout.

The toccata-like finale is a sonata-form movement with equally vivid contrasts between its door-knocking minor-mode first theme in repeated 8th notes, replete with imitative contrapuntal chatter, and its breathless major-mode second theme in constant 16th-note motion. As in the first movement, both themes recur in the minor mode in the recapitulation.

Haydn’s remarkable accomplishment in this sonata is to offer the strong emotional content that his age craved, within a formal structure of elegantly balanced contrasts and recurring motivic relationships.

Frédéric Chopin
Sonata No. 2 in B- at minor Op. 35

Chopin’s second piano sonata was completed in Nohant, at the French country house of his paramour, the (female) writer George Sand, in 1839, although the famous funeral march around which is built had been composed a year or two earlier. It comprises four movements: a sonata-form movement followed by a scherzo, a funeral march slow movement, and a brief final movement that figures among the most puzzling works of the 19th century.

The sonata opens with a dramatic gesture: a plunging diminished 7th in bass octaves, like a corpse being heaved into a grave, or maybe simply a nod
to the stark opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op. 111, but in slow motion. Transformed into a grim cadence, it issues into a first theme in doppio movimento (double time) that spills out in panting fragments of melody riding atop an agitated accompaniment in a constant horse-hoof rhythm. The momentum slows rapidly at the appearance of a peaceful and consoling second theme in the major mode, but this theme is set aside during a development section that transforms the first theme’s stuttering utterances into convulsive spasms of a passionate intensity. It is perhaps for this reason that it is the poised lyricism of the placid second theme that dominates the recapitulation to take the movement to unsuspected heights of glory in its luminous final bars.

A drama of contrasting poles of emotion, the explosive vs. the reflective,
plays out once again in the scherzo that follows. The movement begins with a powerful crescendo of jackhammer octaves that establishes a mood of brutal resolve and muscular exuberance that is interrupted by an episode of lyrical daydreaming. This middle section, with its sleepy, repetitious melody and gentle left-hand murmurings, is hypnotic, almost static, breathed out in a series of long sighs that are recalled at the very end of the movement, even after the opening turmoil has returned.

The emotional centre-weight of this sonata is its third movement, the famous funeral march that was destined to accompany John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, and Chopin himself to their graves. With its incessant dotted rhythm and plodding, drone-like bass, it solemnly paces onward in the style of funeral marches from the French Revolution, of the sort that Beethoven memorialized in his Eroica Symphony and his Sonata in A at Op. 26. The grieving footfall yields, however, to a surprisingly innocent, almost childlike melody in a middle section that displays Chopin’s mastery of pedal-enhanced piano tone. This melody is enveloped by a haze of overtones drifting up from a nocturne-like pattern of accompaniment figures that stretch over two octaves in the left hand, seamlessly connecting it to the sound world of the sombre dirge at its return.

No definitive interpretation has been found to explain the enigmatic brevity and oddly ‘empty’ musical content of the final movement of this sonata. Written in a single line of parallel octaves that ripple across the keyboard in ghostly patterns of little harmonic consequence, it seems to evoke a spirit world immune to the passions that motivated the previous movements.

Franz Liszt
Consolation No. 3 in D at major

Liszt was not only a dazzling virtuoso performer in the technical sense, he also was an emotional athlete capable of evoking the most tender of psychological states in music of a confessional intimacy that his age found utterly compelling, and of which the present age has not grown weary.

This is aesthetic territory also occupied by Chopin, and in the third of
Liszt’s six Consolations written in the late 1840s he appears to channel Chopin’s Nocturne in D at Op. 27 No. 2, not only in using a narrow dynamic range, thirds-enriched melodic line and widely-spaced left-hand chordal accompaniment, but also in the way in which a low D at bass drone note
in both works interacts poetically with delicately changing harmony notes drifting in circular patterns above.

The sonic design of the piano texture in this piece is brilliantly effective, divided cleanly between three distinctly separate areas of the keyboard: a ‘consolingly’ stable succession of fundamental notes deep in the bass, each lasting several bars at a time; a rippling pool of overtone notes in the mid- range either reinforcing or smudging those of the bass notes; and a soprano melody line splendidly isolated in the high register, like a diva in a pool of light on a dark stage.

Franz Liszt
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2

There are few pieces more cunningly designed for immediate appeal than Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1851), a work likely known to more people on the planet through the cartoon antics of Bugs Bunny than the artistic exertions of a concert pianist on stage.

Liszt’s nationalistic evocation of what he held to be the musical style of the gypsy population of his native Hungary is expressed in the two-part division into a ruminative lassan and exuberant friska, the pianistic imitation of the cimbalom (Hungarian zither), the capricious changes of tone from aggressive self-assertion to coy, even seductive restraint, and by moments of maudlin self- pity alternating with fits of whirling frenzy.

But in music of such capricious charm, there await hidden perils for the serious performing musician.

For what but an unerring sense of style filtered through a respect for artistic decorum, and an innate theatrical air held in check by an instinct for good taste, separates a Liszt from a Liberace?

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42

Rachmaninoff ’s last original work for solo piano, a set of variations on a theme he thought to have been written by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), was written in 1931. The theme was not, in fact, by Corelli. It was rather a traditional Iberian folk-dance melody, a slow sarabande known as La Folia that many other composers had used before, Bach, Vivaldi and Liszt among them.

Rachmaninoff lays bare the tune’s repetitive patterning in a starkly simple presentation emphasizing the pathos of the melody’s unfolding in a succession of short sighs. What follows is a series of textural variations largely based on the underlying harmonic progressions in the theme. Or rather, two sets of variations, separated by an intermezzo.

The first set comprises Variations 1-13 in which the theme is at first left largely recognizable, its rhythmic outline merely altered within the bar. In Variations
5 to 7 a more punchy version of the harmonic pattern emerges, followed by another spate of introspection in Variations 8 and 9. Then momentum builds relentlessly from the scherzo scamper of Variation 10 to the aggressive jostling of Variation 13.

At this point Rachmaninoff pauses to regroup, both aesthetically and pianistically. He inserts an intermezzo in a free improvisatory style (with many parallels to the 11th Variation in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) that alternates mordent-encrusted thematic musings with scintillating washes of sparkling keyboard colour.

And then he seems to start over again, presenting us once again with the theme, but in the major mode and more richly, more darkly harmonized. It is the same melody, but it seems more world-weary, more resigned than when he heard it at first. There is an eerie sort of nostalgia that weighs it down, as if it had aged.

This nostalgia, and the eerie emotional state that accompanies it, follows
into Variation 15 before the kind of muscular keyboard writing for which Rachmaninoff is known returns. The final variations become increasingly animated until reaching a heaven-storming pitch in Variation 20, in which walls of sound echo back and forth between the lowest and highest registers.

How will it end? Rachmaninoff, having red all his big guns, then backs away from the enormity of what he has just done. The work concludes with a mysteriously smoky, darkly chromatic coda that seems to want to escape the harmonic implications of the insistent low pedal point that implacably tolls the work’s end.

There is an intimation of bitterness and resignation that hangs in the air as the final chords of Rachmaninoff’s final original piano work fade to the back of the hall, an air of fatalism and mindful regret that may well de ne the Russian soul better than any words.

Donald G. Gíslason 2017


George Li: program notes

George LiLi at piano
Programme Notes
Performance: Vancouver Playhouse, Sunday, December 4, 2011

Carl Czerny
Variations on a Theme by Rode, Op. 33 (“La Ricordanza”)

Most concertgoers know Carl Czerny only as the early nineteenth-century pedagogue who churned out endless dull exercises that continue to be inflicted upon piano students this day. True, he did compose a tremendous amount – 861 opus numbers and an even greater amount published without opus numbers – and true, the exercises are dull. But Czerny composed much else that is decidedly not dull.

Unlike his teacher Beethoven, and unlike his star pupil Franz Liszt, Czerny was no innovator, but within the parameters of his time much of his music is eminently pleasing, charming, tasteful and sensitively written. He wrote voluminously in nearly every known form and genre of the time: sonatas, fantasias, theme and variation sets, piano concertos, symphonies, sacred choral music, string quartets and much other chamber music. His most frequently recorded composition would seem to be an Andante and Pollaca for horn and piano, with the Variations on this afternoon’s program not far behind.

The variation form and its close cousin the fantasia were immensely popular in the early nineteenth century. Beethoven wrote some twenty sets of variations for piano. Czerny mined dozens of operas, symphonies, overtures, oratorios and ballets by Beethoven, Bellini, Cherubini, Donizetti, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Weber and others for his variation sets and fantasias. From the famous French violinist Pierre Rode (1774-1830) he borrowed the tune “La Ricordanza” and set it as a theme with five variations for solo piano. A stately one precedes the final and most brilliant variation, which in turn is followed by a return to the theme for a quiet closing.

Arnold Schoenberg
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke (Six Little Piano Pieces), Op. 19

Schoenberg, unlike the other composers represented on this program, was not a keyboard virtuoso. Nevertheless, he turned to the piano as a medium of experimentation on more than one occasion. One such occasion came in 1909, when he produced his first atonal composition, the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11.

Essentially what Schoenberg achieved in these pieces was the emancipation of dissonance from its ties to traditional harmony. A “dissonant” note or chord no longer had any contextual relationship to surrounding pitches; it existed in and of itself. It is traditional to view these pieces as a milestone, a break with the past, a giant step forward in the development of music history. Yet Schoenberg always regarded this music as an absolutely logical continuation of the past, something “distinctly a product of evolution, and no more revolutionary than any other development in the history of music.”

Schoenberg’s next piano music, Op. 19, appeared in 1911. But whereas the three pieces of Op. 11 require about a quarter of an hour to perform, the six pieces of Op. 19 require barely five minutes. “A novel in a sigh” was the expression coined for such pieces.

Continuing where he left off in Op. 11, Schoenberg made the non-recurrence of thematic material the operating principle in Op. 19. The dynamic level is also telescoped, with emphasis on the softer end of the spectrum. And as David Burge points out, the performance direction mit sehr zartem Ausdruck (with very delicate expression) three bars before the end of the last piece “might well serve as an overall injunction for performance of the entire set.”

The first five pieces were written in February of 1911, possibly all in a single day. Microcosmic wisps of sound flutter about in No. 1, which is played nearly all pianissimo (very quiet). No. 2 features a single interval, the major third, repeated playfully (or obsessively, if that is your response) throughout. The third is notable for its opening bars in which the right hand plays forte (loud), the left hand piano (soft or quiet). No. 4 opens in a mood of frolic, but comes to a crashing end just twenty seconds later in brutally hammered fortissimo chords (very loud). Not even Schoenberg was immune to the waltz – it seems to run in the veins of nearly all Viennese; No. 5 suggests its characteristic rhythmic pattern.

The final piece was written in June, one month after Schoenberg accompanied Mahler to his grave. Bell-like sonorities evoke the remote, pastoral landscapes Mahler conjured up in his symphonies. Paolo Petazzi sees this haunting music as “motionless planes of sound set against one another [to] create a chill, insubstantial timbre which hovers on the edge of silence, as if pointing to a dimension the ear cannot perceive.”

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata no. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”)

The “Appassionata” Sonata, composed in 1804-06, remains one of Beethoven’s greatest and most frequently heard works in any medium. The title helps, of course. It does have passion – to a generous degree. But it has much more than that. Czerny regarded the sonata as “the most perfect carrying out of a mighty and colossal plan.” As with so many of Beethoven’s compositions, the title was affixed not by the composer but by a publisher, in this case the Hamburg firm of Cranz, which brought out the sonata in a duet version in 1838. Strange as it may seem today, Czerny thought that an earlier Beethoven sonata ought to bear the title “Appassionata”, Op. 7 in E flat, a relatively tame work compared to Op. 57.

The opening movement is largely music of sound and fury, defined above all by rhythmic insistence. Both the defiantly rising principal subject (opening measures) and the lyrical, rising-and-falling second subject share a similar rhythmic pattern (long-short-long; long-short long), and both are built from arpeggios. “How wondrous that the composer can establish such diverse moods with the same material,” remarks pianist Anton Kuerti, “and especially that he can create such noble tranquility with this bumpy rhythm.” Additionally, there is a rhythmic motto appearing often throughout the movement that corresponds exactly to that of the opening of the Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-daahh).

The second movement offers an oasis of tranquility and repose. It is a theme-and-variations movement, built, like the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, more from a harmonic progression than from a melody. Each of the three variations employs increasingly rapid note values (eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds). Following is a small coda that disintegrates into a mysterious chord, which, as if jolted with an electric shock, reenergizes itself and launches into the finale.

This concluding movement, in sonata form like the first, is one of the most demonic things Beethoven ever wrote, a musical juggernaut of relentless forward momentum and almost frightening power. To Kuerti, “the accompaniment is the very substance of the music; its perpetuum mobile pervades all. It is quiet but chilling, like the waves in the middle of the ocean.  Over this rises a series of desolate, penetrating cries…” Tension builds to almost unbearable levels, finally bursting its bonds in the presto coda, which roars to an apocalyptic conclusion.

Mauric Ravel
Oiseaux tristes
Alborada del gracioso

In 1904-05, Ravel composed a set of five piano pieces collectively entitled Miroirs, which he claimed “marked a change in my harmonic development great enough to disconcert even those most accustomed to my style up to that point.” “Oiseaux tristes” (Sad Birds) is the second of the collection, “Alborada del gracioso” is the fourth. Each of the five Miroirs was dedicated to a different friend or colleague. “Oiseaux tristes” went to the famous Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes, who gave the first performance of the entire set in 1906. Ravel wrote “in this work, I evoke birds engrossed in the torpor of a dark forest during the peak hours of summer heat.”

“Alborada del gracioso” is one of Ravel’s most brilliant and effective evocations of Spain, richly informed with coloristic detail, evocative images, percussive effects and pyrotechnical displays (particularly the rapidly repeated notes played at all-but-impossible speeds). The title resists direct translation; it implies something along the lines of a court jester singing to his ladylove at dawn, and perhaps dancing a bit as well. Ravel later orchestrated the work, in which form it is often heard at symphony concerts.

The ten-minute work is laid out in three connected sections. The brilliant outer parts are characterized by alternating patterns of vibrant rhythms set to the clack of simulated castanets and raucous strumming of a guitar. Boston Symphony annotator Steven Ledbetter refers to this music as “a glorious racket. As a real ‘dawn song,’ the work would be catastrophic; in addition to waking the lovers, it would arouse the entire neighborhood.” The somewhat meditative central section evokes more the clownish aspect of the work’s title.

Franz Liszt
Consolation no. 3 in D flat major
Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2

In 2009 it was Mendelssohn. In 2010, Chopin and Schumann. This year, another giant from the annals of the world’s greatest composer-pianists, Franz Liszt, takes the spotlight on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Liszt was the quintessential figure of nineteenth-century musical Romanticism. His long life encompassed any number of emotional upheavals, quasi-mystical religious experiences, a visit from the Pope, an attempted murder, a cancelled marriage at the eleventh hour, enough love affairs (including with royalty) for any ten normal men, at least half a dozen occupations, visionary ideas of Music of the Future, a compulsion to be different (he was the first to give a complete solo recital without sharing the stage with other artists), an all-consuming sense of destiny, pianistic powers beyond belief, and a mind of near-genius proportions. Liszt was a biographer’s dream.

In 1848 Liszt abandoned his career as a spectacular touring piano virtuoso to settle in Weimar as a conductor. Concurrently, his output for piano slowed considerably, but he did produce two final etudes in 1862-1863. Formally known as Two Concert Etudes, they are more commonly referred to by their poetic subtitles, which, incidentally, do not appear on the autograph manuscript. Both are dedicated to Liszt’s pupil Dionys Prunker.

In Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs), the trees rustle almost continuously as portrayed in the sextuplet figuration that alternates from right hand to left while the other hand spins out a single tranquil melody dolce con grazia (sweetly and gracefully). This music comes from the romantic world of the mysterious, dimly-lit forest (Schumann’s Waldszenen appeared just fifteen years earlier, and Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” in the opera Siegfried were just a few years down the road), yet it is nevertheless highly chromatic. As Ben Arnold points out, there are no fewer than ten changes of key within its 97 measures.

While Waldesrauschen is a study in lyricism and tranquility, Gnomenreigen (Round Dance of the Gnomes) glitters and sparkles. Its spiritual ancestors are the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the “Queen Mab” Scherzo from Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliet. “One of Liszt’s cleverest and most facetious works,” claims Arnold.

The six Consolations were published as a group in 1850 (all but No. 5 were composed in 1848). “Their reflective, self-communing character reveals a new and much more thoughtful Liszt,” writes Liszt scholar Alan Walker. The title has two possible derivations, both poetic. Most scholars, including Walker, attribute it to a collection of poems by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the Consolations of 1830. Another possibility is Lamartine’s poem “Une larme, ou consolation.”  In either case, a quality of melancholy and introspection permeates the music, as it does the poems (“music tinged with a secret sorrow,” as Walker writes). No. 3, marked Lento placido, is the longest, probably the best known, and the one closest in style to Chopin nocturnes – comparison with the one in the same key, D flat major (Op. 27, No. 2) is almost inevitable.

Liszt was captivated by Hungarian gypsy music all his life, right from childhood. He collected melodies he heard played at campsites and other locations. His writings are peppered with references to them and their music, and he even wrote a 450-page treatise on the subject, published in 1859. Liszt was mistaken in equating “gypsy” music with that of the Hungarian Magyars, as research by Bartók, Kodály and others has proven. The themes he used actually came from “urban” sources, mostly popular tunes recently composed. The gypsy flavor derives from use of the so-called “gypsy scale,” sectional structure punctuated by sudden breaks, abrupt transitions, and a freely improvisatory style. Contrast and gathering momentum are the principal shaping forces of this music.

The nineteen rhapsodies were composed across a span of more than four decades. No. 2, by far the most popular, comes from 1847. Thereafter came arrangements, rearrangements and disarrangements for everything from simplified versions for young piano students to full orchestra, and in everything from Bugs Bunny cartoons to feature films (100 Men and a Girl).

No. 2, like many of the Rhapsodies, begins with a slow introduction leading into an Andante mesto, which features a lush, passionate theme. The second main part is the friska, which begins quietly and gradually builds in speed, texture and volume.

Programme notes by Robert Markow, 2011.

The most remarkable career of George Li (黎卓宇)

GeorgeLiAnd what a career it has been for this 15 year old pianist!

George Li began winning competitions at age 6 and he made is first public performance at Boston Steinway Hall at the age of nine.

One of his biggest achievements came in 2010 when he performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1 with the Cleveland Orchestra, which garnered him the first prize in the Cooper International Piano Competition. The package included an astonishing full scholarship for four years to attend the Oberlin Convervatory of Music, as well as concerto performances in Beijing and Shanghai, China.

In addition to performing with the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor Jahja Ling, George Li has performed with orchestras from around the world: Xiamen Philharmonic (China; Tao Lin conductor), Symphony Pro Musica (Mark Churchill conductor), Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (Venezuela; Sarah Ioannides conductor), Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (Benjamin Zander, conductor), Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra (Arkady Leytush conductor), Miami Symphony Orchestra (Eduardo Marturet conductor), Princeton Symphony Orchestra (Benjamin Zander, conductor), Albany Symphony Orchestra (David Alan Miller conductor), Lexington Symphony Orchestra (Jonathan McPhee), and Orchestra “I Solisti di Perugia” (Spoleto, Italy).

Another interesting achievement was an appearance on television with Martha Stewart… at the age of 11!. You can watch the segment here.

Every great pianist performs at Carnegie Hall and George is no exception. Here is a clip from Live at Carnegie Hall of George performing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 11.

Visit George Li’s website and Vancouver Recital Society for more information. To reserve your tickets to George Li’s December 4 performance please call the VRS box office at 604-602-0363. Tickets also available through (service fees apply).

For Your Viewing Pleasure

It seems only appropriate to highlight the dynamic skills of Kirill Gerstein in a performance of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Piano Concerto with the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

And while we are considering virtuoso performances, we could not resist offering two encore performances by George Li (Playhouse, Sunday, December 4). We have uploaded two videos of George performing Flight of the Bumblebee, the first video showcases George’s talent at the astonishing age of 12, the second features George at age 15.