The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Chinese pianist Yundi Li leaves EMI and returns to Deutsche Grammophon as his home recording label, according to the Wall Street Journal. | May 8, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

There is good news to report on the recording front.

As of last Friday afternoon, the Hong Kong-based Chinese pianist Yundi Li (below) – at 18 the first Chinese pianist and the youngest person ever to win the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (he did it back in 2000) – has left EMI and returned to Deutsche Grammophon.

Here is a link to a story in the Wall Street Journal:

And here is another link to an Asian site:

This is good news because he was let go by Deutsche Grammophon when his superstar Chinese compatriot and competitor Lang Lang (below) was the big seller and demanded that Li be let go because Lang-Lang felt there just wasn’t room for two Chinese pianists at DG.

Then of course the best-selling and flamboyant Lang-Lang – nicknamed Bang Bang by some critics — sold out to Sony Classical that had gone shopping for him with a black check. He reportedly settled for a payment of $3 million – during a time when record companies were general cutting back on new releases and in-house artists.

So Li when to EMI, the British label that has had major financial problems recently.

For EMI, he changed his name simply to Yundi and recorded the complete Chopin nocturnes as the first installment of complete Chopin project that never materialized. He then recorded a live recital, with lots of Chopin and some Liszt, in Beijing; then he came up with an all-Chinese recital. All of the seemed like let-downs to The Ear.

Clearly, he seemed headed – steered, should I say — on the path to being the Lang Lang of EMI.

The charismatic and deeply musical Li deserved better than that. And now he has it.

I have yet to see an official announcement from DG or its parent company Universal, so I don’t know whether he will retain how new single name Yundi – which seems too precious and gimmicky — or return to Yundi Li, as I would like to see. (Similar to the way the punky British violinist Nigel Kennedy, below, went by the moniker Kennedy for a while and then came to his senses and returned to Nigel Kennedy.)

According to industry watchers and insiders like British journalist and critic Norman Lebrecht, for DG Li will record first popular Beethoven sonatas (the “Moonlight,” “Appassionata” and the “Pathetique”) and then Beethoven concertos for DG. 

That is a significant expansion of his repertoire and reputation, though his CD for DG of a recital in Vienna suggests those choices will be just fine. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see the results and should mark a major course change for the better in his career. I hope his programs and recordings become more exploratory.

Anyway, The Ear sends out Congratulations to Yundi Li, to Deutsche Grammophon and to all piano fans.


  1. MBB has made a very very fine point indeed.
    The comparison between Lang and Li is most aptly made.
    Technically Lang is superior to LI. In terms of musicality, Li is not behind Lang.
    But LI has a large following in China homeground that Lang lacks.
    So DG decides to take Li back in a commercially wise move, since Yujia Wang (also of DG) failed to catch as large a following as Li in China.
    Let’s wait and see what comes of Lang Lang.

    Comment by Abel Shin — July 18, 2012 @ 2:28 am

  2. Is Lang Lang a poser, you bet. He is a cartoon pianist come to life. BUT, popularizers have their role to play, which is to bring in new people to the audience for classical music. For DG to not see that they have one big draw and one larger artist is short-sighted on their part. For Lang Lang to want Yundi Li gone from his turf is smart business for him, but bad business for DG and classical music.
    Schuyler Chapin once said that Horowitz was a master showman who knew how to cultivate and captivate an audience. Lang Lang can do the same thing. Other pianists can do this as well, without going as far into the pop music bag of tricks, and thus maintain their artistic credentials while achieving success. Critics do love their struggling artists, do they not? Sucess just galls them like nothing else…
    Lang Lang can play, and critics who dismiss his actual music making have their eyes open while he is playing. Close them and just listen. Can Li make consistently finer music? Sure, although he sustained an injury to his right wrist a few years ago. Another Graffman student who gets hurt, I sense a pattern here, Gary.
    Anyway, I bought a DVD of Yundi playing, and I can see how he got hurt from the way he plays. Not enough arm, too much tension in the forearm and hand, which makes each large chord a stressor beyond what is actually necessary.
    So, Chinese pianists continue to make serious Western classical music. Be on the alert, European and American musicians, as your cultural heritage is about to be co-opted, sort of like how Chinese antiquities were exported wholesale to the West. Now the Chinese are buying back their treasures, and exporting interpreters of the music of the West. Seems like proper poetic justice to me. If we as a culture are not much interested in our own legacy, it is good that Someone is.

    Comment by Michael BB — May 8, 2012 @ 8:18 am

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