Critics are praising

Lisa Yui - 4 Beethoven Sonatas

Performance and Commentary

Blu-ray and DVD (Aurora Classics)

Available on Amazon and Aurora Classics


PIANiSTE (July/August 2014)  - receives the “Pianiste Maestro” rating

Musicologist (her doctoral degree is on the Belgian pianist Marie Pleyel) and renowned professor (she notably directs a series of concerts "The Lives of the Piano" in Manhattan, as well as a series of lecture-concerts, "Beethoven at Yamaha") the Japanese-Canadian pianist Lisa Yui offers us outstanding interpretations and presentations of these sonatas. A disciple of Oxana Yablonskaya, Byron Janis and Marc Silverman, among others...... In Blu-ray, these performances, which were recorded in New York, immediately strike you with its clarity of articulation, the flexibility the notes. Here is the kind of relaxation which Aldo Ciccolini stated is the prelude to all interpretation. In simple gestures, she clearly reveals the polyphony but with an overall dramatic sense (sonatas "Moonlight" and "Appassionata"). No phrase is aggressive, and this classical lyricism, anti-theatrical almost, is as effective as it is musical. Those who wish to learn more about these works will find included in this video precious help in the commentary (in fluent English). We note the excellence of the sound and image, despite the somewhat claustrophobic nature of the shots.

Before I kvel over Lisa Yui’s playing in these Beethoven sonatas—and there’s a lot to kvel about—let me first kvel about the commentaries she offers prior to performing each work. So insightful are her observations that I, for one, wish she would expand them into a formal lecture series. I’d be first in line to attend.

For example, in her commentary on the “Waldstein” Sonata, she explains and illustrates at the keyboard how Beethoven begins his very next sonata, the No. 22, op. 54, in the same key of F Major and with a melodic and harmonic motive very similar to the “Waldstein’s” originally intended second movement, which he withdrew and which was later published as the standalone Andante favori. The resemblance between the two movements, as demonstrated by Yui, is remarkable, and her speculation on the similarity is fascinating. Might Beethoven have regretted tossing out the Andante favori, and might he have wanted to compensate for its loss by composing another movement in the same vein for his next sonata? If that’s so, then why not just use the ready-made Andante favori as the first movement of op. 54? It’s thought-provoking observations like this that have me totally captivated by Yui’s brief discourses and demonstrations, which I only wish were longer and even more elaborated.

Another engrossing example is Yui’s discussion of the “Moonlight” Sonata in which she maintains that the nickname has probably done more harm than good in interpreting the first movement because it implies something dreamy and romantic, whereas the music actually expresses something more tragic and funereal. Yui then cites a manuscript on which Beethoven jotted down a fragment from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where the Commendatore is killed by the Don, and when she plays that passage from the opera, you can hear the uncanny resemblance it bears to the Isle-of-the-Dead-like rowing oarsman triplets of Beethoven’s sonata. How many listeners make that association when they hear the “Moonlight” Sonata? I’m guessing not a lot; yet, there it is, and it can’t be denied. With this one well-chosen illustration, Yui puts Beethoven’s most popular sonata in an entirely different perspective, and you will never hear it the same way again.

I don’t know how many performing artists think as deeply about the music they’re playing and find these sorts of thematic and motivic connections between seemingly unrelated works, but Yui is one of them, and you have to love her for it. Her insights are extremely knowledgeable, educative, and enlightening, and they add immeasurable value to this release. Best of all, you find yourself thinking about and hearing those connections yourself as you watch and listen to her play these works.

As a pianist, Yui is nothing short of phenomenal, but it isn’t her sure-fingered technique that makes the most lasting impression—nowadays technical perfection is taken for granted—rather, it’s her musically inspired readings which are informed by the most illuminating and emotionally pregnant readings.

My ultimate test for any pianist in the “Waldstein” Sonata is not how fast his or her fingers fly in the first movement, or how enigmatic the atmosphere he or she creates in the Introduzione; instead, it’s the feeling of sublime awe and serene ecstasy the pianist communicates at the quiet stealing in of the last movement’s melody, with its hesitant vacillations between E-flat and E-natural, and its eventual transformation into a triumphant shout of joy. Yui takes my breath away every time I hear her enter through that portal onto hallowed ground.

Likewise, in the “Appassionata” Sonata, it’s not the swirling gales that bluster through the first and last movements that grip me as much as the simple eloquence of the middle variations movement, which, through its process of incrementally increasing tempos and more active embellishment, makes so much of so little. Yui storms with very best in the sonata’s outer movements, but again, she brings a sense of otherworldly tranquility to the variations that moves me deeply.

A graduate of Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, Lisa Yui has been a top prizewinner at a number of competitions and has concertized widely here and abroad. Since 2004, she has also been on the Manhattan School of Music’s faculty.

Two discs come housed inside the outer jacket. One is a standard DVD, which should be playable on your computer and many second and third generation disc players capable of handling CDs, SACDs, DVDs, and DVD-As. The second is a Blu-ray disc containing the exact same program. In all likelihood, it will not play on your computer or on any player not specifically patented for the purpose. The good news, though, if that if you own or purchase a Blu-ray player, it will play not just Blu-ray discs, but all of the above-named formats, so you really need only one playback device in your equipment rack.

Lisa Yui is an exceptionally talented artist whose Aurora release offers some of the finest Beethoven playing to be heard by anyone in conjunction with highly stimulating commentary that is sure to get you to hear familiar music in a new and different light. Urgently recommended.

FANFARE (Nov./Dec. 2014)  - review by Jerry Dubins