By Jacob Stockinger
The Ear sees Lang Lang — the world’s highest paid classical pianist — and Yundi Li and all the Chinese winners of major competitions, and he reads that there are more piano students in China than in all of Western Europe, North America and South America combined.
But the path to such success wasn’t easy.
In fact it was downright tragic during the Cultural Revolution waged by Chairman Mao Zedong – with dramatic stories and figures that may be worthy of an opera or two. (Below is a poster from the Cultural Revolution.)
Anyway, weekends are a good time for reading longer pieces.
So here is a fine and eye-opening story The Ear liked. It comes from The Guardian newspaper in the UK. It even ponders the question of whether the more cerebral and intellectual Johann Sebastian Bach will soon replace the more dramatic and emotional Ludwig van Beethoven as China’s favorite classical composer.
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.