The audience that greeted Chinese pianist Yundi Li at his sold-out recital on Saturday was enthusiastic. Not just to hear the concert, it seemed, but to be part of the phenomenon. Flashbulbs went off during the applause between works, as if he were David Ortiz batting at Fenway.
But perhaps the better analogy would be to Wily Mo Pena, the Sox' recently acquired outfielder. Like Pena, the 23-year-old Li is immensely talented but a work in progress. On the evidence of Saturday's concert, though, his potential seems limitless.
Li's playing has a gorgeous tone that's full of color, and his phrasing is fluid and intensely musical. He also has his own ideas about how pieces should sound, which became apparent in his performance of Schumann's ''Carnaval." Rather than capture the character of each of the suite's 20 miniatures, Li seemed to hear it as a single unbroken journey. If a few sections sounded forced, it took on a cumulative power that was thrilling. It was an unorthodox but rewarding way to hear a repertory staple.
Chopin's ''Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante" was similarly rewarding. A feast of dynamic and rhythmic control, it made for a superb program closer.
Between those two came Liszt's famously taxing B-minor Sonata, and here the results were less happy. No complaints about Li's technique: He overcame all of the sonata's demands with aplomb. Cascades of double octaves were thrown off at a speed that dazzled both eye and ear. But amid all the din there was precious little poetry or meaning. All that liquid phrasing was replaced by musical ideas so stretched and stressed that they seemed to have no connection to one another. Li's rounded tone was replaced by hammering waves of sound.
Curiously, the most rewarding piece on Saturday's program was the opener, Mozart's C-major Sonata (K.330). When Lang Lang, another young Chinese pianist now climbing the ranks, played the same sonata last year, it sounded fussy and mannered. Li's playing was a model of clarity, elegance, and unaffected grace. He found a deep reservoir of feeling in its slow movement, and did so with unassuming musicianship. As much as anything else, that pointed to the possibilities open to him.