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Exclusive: Lang Lang’s chief rival joins the label he snubbed

Our man on the spot in Beijing is taking part in an exclusive, festive ceremony as these lines are being written. It’s the signing of a contract between Deutsche Grammophon, the classical market leader, and Yundi Li, the Chopin Competition winner of 2000.

Yundi was kicked off the label in 2009 at the hard-headed demand of his mortal rival Lang Lang. There was, said Lang Lang’s negotiator, only room for one Chinese pianist on the yellow river – sorry, the yellow label.

Yundi was driven, like the Biblical Hagar, into the desert that is EMI Classics. He struggled, he floundered, he sold very few records in the West. Then, in 2010, Lang Lang walked out on DG complaining that he could not communicate with its boss at the time, the inconveniently named Michael Lang. For a $3 million golden handshake, Lang Lang signed for Sony, a conglomerate which has bigger and more crucial interests in China than DG’s parent Universal.

Yundi, however, did not let sleeping dogs lie. Back home in China, he just got bigger and bigger – ‘very self-confident, a big macher’, says our source on the spot, in slightly imperfect Mandarin*.

So, today, Yundi will put his name on a piece of paper and rejoin DG in a power shift of considerable proportions. DG also has Yuja Wang, short-skirted and increasingly popular. In the world’s fastest growing classical market, Lang Lang now faces two guns, not one. High noon cannot be far off.

* macher = Yiddish for big shot. Used in the music biz to indicate anyone with power.

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  1. Andrew Powell says:

    There really is no comparison between these three pianists. The one simply towers artistically over the other two, and has the prize to prove it if listening directly to the work of the three does not suffice.

  2. The performance is ridiculous – the beat so off – - it is all about Chinese market $$$$- who understand zilch about
    the music as a Western art form .
    Now DG has its own pianistic vulgarity . Quite a low age — of Lang Lang – Bell – Li – Wang – etc.. and if Mr. Powell
    believes that winning a prize is proof of artistic merit ,then we are indeed in serious trouble concerning the
    so called classical world of music.

    • Andrew Powell says:

      Well certainly winning the Chopin Competition is “proof of artistic merit”! And of technical ability. And of discipline. Do you imagine it proves nothing?

      • It only proves you worked hard to second guess what the judges might like .
        It means you show technical ability and as Rubinstein commented – that you can play or not
        play the piano …rarely does it show artistic capabilities . you will note how carefully Mr. Li
        plays in the competition and how dreadful he is here with the Polonaise. He has a least learnt that
        you can bang the hell out of a work as does Lang Lang and get a great $$$ audience .

        • $$&*#$!!$$$ $&#*$$$

        • Richard Hertz says:

          there’s always popular performers, and there’s always historically good performers. and they always exist at the same time. there’s a reason there’s one rubinstein.

          my advice to you: appreciate the good where you find it, and stop shitting on other performers, whatever there worth is in your eyes.

        • Andrew Powell says:

          I’m guessing you’re a fan of Khatia Buniatishvili, for example, whose beat is “on” and who never bangs “the hell out of a work” ;-)

      • Dr. Marc Villeger says:

        And an argument of authority… naive comment at best.

      • RE: Andrew Powell says:

        Winning the Chopin Competition is nothing if one then goes on to perform terribly around the world.
        I had the utmost misfortune to watch Yundi perform the most horrible Tchaikovsky Concerto performance ever about three to four years ago.
        From the onset he played his opening chords arrhythmically as if drunk, missed at least 70% of his notes, forgot his cadenza midway and started improvising, rushed and lurched like a complete maniac throughout the second and last movements. The orchestra members said he was much worse during rehearsals.
        It was unequivocally the worst performance I had ever seen.
        He was horrid. Any decent conservatory student could have played better than he did.

  3. yundi li, welcome back to DGG. great great new!!!

  4. Andrew Powell says:

    On at least one of Yundi Li’s recent EMI discs, the copyright appears to remain with some entity other than EMI. Can anyone shed light on this?

    • Andrew Powell says:

      … anyone = Norman …


    • I can’t shed light on this project exactly, but that situation would usually occur when an external sponsor is brought in who underwrites the project, and the “tape” is listened to the record label to exploit comercially for a given amount of time – a fairly routine practice.

  5. Andrei says:

    Welcome back YUNDI, such a great pianist.

  6. Yundi sure got bigger and bigger in China by appearing in various (fashion) magazines, attending this and that gala, variety shows (where he impersonated Lang Lang’s face…playing that Bb-m nocturne) and flaunting his fabulous life and “gorgeous” face on weibo.

    I am not sure if DG has actually heard any of his life performances for the past two years, limited repertoire aside (of course he call that being “selective”) , everything was extremely sloppy and ill-prepared, just take a look at his Heroic Polonaise at the Hong Kong Film Award ceremony ( and that’s supposed to be his expertise…

    Good luck DG, you will need one heck of a sound engineer/editor for Yundi’s next CD.

    • Alessandro S. says:

      Yundi is talented and still has a long way to go. The link about his performance makes me think, he might want to form his own style, a little bit powerful, and different from what we used to listen. New album may give me new impression on him except Chopin and Liszt. I think Yundi has kept good relationship with DG after he was kicked off the label. His album in 2010, Live in Beijing, was recorded by the same sound engineer in DG. This may explain why he choose to join DG again.

    • Alessandro S. says:

      You must have pay close attention to him recently, and he will be happy to have a “stalker” like you. My memory about him vanished in 2008. He disappeared for years and when he come back, the “stalker” comes back with him.

      • There is no need to stalk (or even look for) him when he is and has been everywhere in China’s (where he has retreated back to, after giving up his study at Hanover Germany) mainstream media – working as spoke model for companies, designing limited edition handbag for Coach. He is clogging up my news feed and I don’t even follow him on Weibo.

        I understand how you guys (as well as those giggly female fans in Asia) would always regard him as the charming prince of piano who is so low-key and humble (ahem, compared to “that show-off Lang Lang”) because his playing back in the days was actually pretty good. I just don’t get why is he granted life-long credit/merit for a prize (however prestigious that is) he won over 10 years ago, and that he has obviously assumed a new career as a pop-star.

  7. Leslie Goodwin says:

    It should be good news. can’t imagine what the Chinese market looks like, Lang Lang drives me crazy in the past years.

  8. Scott Colebank says:

    I would have thought by now Lang Lang “big” enough to have his own label, any color he wishes?

  9. What is the actual problem with Li’s performance of the Polonaise, except visual perhaps, and prejudgement? Just listening blind with earphones only, one might think it is similar to Argerich at the same age, brilliant and energetic. He takes the middle section at top speed and there are no missed notes either in the whole piece.

    • Mathieu says:

      So, if I understand correctly, “there are no missed notes either in the whole piece” = “proof of artistic quality” ! Seriously, I have listened it blind too, and this is much too “maniéré” for me. But I would not make my opinion based solely on one YouTube video. Yundi Li’s first CDs were quite good indeed, setting a standard I am not sure he is now able to live up to.

      • No, “proof of artistic quality” is an incorrect assumption. Actually, to my ears his playing is remarkably free of mannerisms that one gets with Lang Lang on occasion. Some of the best pianists have tripped up on the octaves or some of the other treacherous leaps, that’s all.

        • Petros Linardos says:

          I, too, didn’t notice in Yundi’s Heroic Polonaise mistakes or annoying mannerisms, and found plenty of power and drive, but not enough nuance, tonal control, or character. The missing qualities are found in abundance at the clip of the young Argerich I posted in another message below. Lisitsa (in the same work) and Fliter (in another Polonaise) are also way more interesting to listen to than Yundi:

          I hope Yundi is simply caught in a bad moment. But if this is representative of his current state, I’ll agree with Mathieu about unfulfilled promise. His first Chopin and Liszt recordings had raised higher expectations. That was a decade ago, no less.

      • Andrew Powell says:

        The BBC carried live his Edinburgh recital of September 3, 2011. That reveals unadulterated what “he is now able to live up to” if you can access it.

        The March 13 recital this year in Munich found him below par and perhaps tired. It was a dumber program than in Scotland, with folk songs that few people here (Munich) much care about as part of the listed music, not as encores.

  10. I wonder how many people actually believe this amazing story that Lang Lang all by himself created this whole furor to become a pianist in China, and that 40 million children now take piano lesson because of him. China’s enduring interest in becoming westernized, the rise of a whole new middle class have nothing to do with this? What an exploitation! I think this would have happened whether there was any superstar to herald all of it, but then they needed someone. It didn’t really need to be a real human being, for those selling this image of the superstar, virtuoso, millionaire, dream, celebrity bubble of happiness. They could have almost fabricated someone from this new high tech machine they have which analyses the movements of great pianists, make some sort of devised conglomerate entity, and with computer graphics make this new superstar to market around the planet. Here, you have poor Lang Lang trying to compare the creative release called Serge Prokofiev with video games and what seems to be martial arts. Do you want the joy stick for his left hand or his right hand? “Like two hands fighting.”

  11. Danny B. says:

    On a side note,

    I think Yuja Wang is a very talented pianist. She received an excellent musical education and obviously absorbed much of what was imparted to her. She has outstanding technical abilities, imagination, and an ever expanding repertoire. Let’s not forget that she is very young. Of the three mentioned here, she’s the most devoted, and the superior pianist.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      I agree in general with Danny about Yuja, though I judge primarily from recordings. If she continues to age well artistically, one day she may be a great pianist. In the meantime, her playing is a delight to listen to, and her thighs are very easy on the eye.

      Speaking of easy on the eye, here is clip of a young Marta Argerich playing Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise. I have to respectfully disagree with Cabbagejuice’s assessment of Yundi’s clip above. For instance, who knows better how to build tension in the first 40 seconds leading to the main theme?

      • Andrew Powell says:

        A gold standard — and you have to love the smile :-) at 5:33! She is inside the drama of the piece so fully that discussions about intelligence and imagination seem irrelevant.

        But how long has it been since she gave the world some solo work?

        • anonymous says:

          Thank you for posting Argerich’s performance. The comparison is fascinating, but also alarming. At a superficial hearing, the performance by Yundi Li seems all right. However, to my mind, it lacks the heroic quality that is the essence of the work. I will try to support this view with some comments on the first few bars.

          There is a quaver rest after the opening sforzando E flats. Li pedals over it, and in doing so, misses the essential articulation between the first note and the following semiquaver passage: as the continuation shows, the phrases lead from the semiquavers to the sf chords (in bars 5, 9, 11 and13), not the other way around.

          Li fails to observe the diminuendo in bars 2-3 and so is unable to make any perceptible crescendo in the following bars leading to the sforzando in bar 5 (0.18 to 0.21 in the clip). The comparison with Argerich is stark.

          The rhythm is unsteady. In bars 5, 9 and 11, he plays the semiquaver passages faster each time. You get the impression that he does this for no other reason than he can play double notes very quickly. However this breaks up the structure and releases the tension that would otherwise build through to the appearance of the melody in bar 17 (0.40 in the clip).

          The melody here is simply too loud: something has to be kept in reserve for its grand reappearance, fortissimo, in bar 33. Compare the restraint of Argerich’s performance. And then more problems: the ugly accents on the A flats on the third beats of bars 17 and 18; the accelerando through the semiquavers in bars 18-19; the slowing down in the continuation in bars 19-20…..

          Yes, his playing of the octaves in the middle section is fast and accurate, but to what end if he fails to convey the nobility of the work?

  12. Alessandro S. says:

    Yuja Wang is really more popular. She is a prominent young artist, i’m sure the future will be brilliant.

  13. Here’s something I can share from Argerich, also.
    Mozart’s D minor concerto.
    She even says she feels a little ashamed a bit ( because the conductor is a son of Gulda who played so wonderfully and she…..well, she says she tries).
    For anyone to play this concerto, which for Mozart was the beginning of the end!
    Martha, there’s nothing to be ashamed of…
    I enjoyed it immensely. And it’s beautifully done, and even beyond that, it’s done with understanding. You see, the innate part of being human where one can find a home called music, which is Mozart: this lives on…..
    Thank You
    And I’m really not trying to contribute to this merry go round of comparing people like it’s some sort of competition, and then it’s brought up as to whether someone winning a competition is appropriate fodder for determining whether they win the comparison competition. I suppose I’m competing as to whether I know the appropriate attitude towards competition, whether winning a competition ever means anything, and that my stand point is competing while using competitions as possible fodder or not is enough about competitions and competing to make it redundant, which is the proven best way of getting rid of competition (verified by who won in various competitions on how to how to stop competition)
    Really, it’s just that there are different people, and they are all human

    Here’s Argerich

    And there’s also Clara Haskil

    And here’s Uchida

    And here’s Perahia

    Here’s Gulda

    And Here’s Brendel

    All this in the hopes that in the end it’s about music, and the innate part of everyone that can find a home there and discover what it is to be human; rather than it’s about:
    “This one is better,”
    “No this one is,””
    “ No he’s not this one is!”
    “ Nope it’s this one, she’s the best.”
    “Oh, no way, it’s this one.”

  14. Roelef , to paraphrase Landowska – ” If they just played it the way Chopin indicates .” the performance
    by Argerich and Li are both second rate minds at work .

    • Ariel, I don’t know how many people (“teachers” even) have said the same thing (no insult to Landowksa who could back up her statement) when they aren’t even articulately seeing what’s there in the score. If they would have an intuitive response to the music that would diffuse the whole tension they cause trying to be “objective” they would freak out thinking they aren’t being disciplined. Consequently, they aren’t even relaxed enough to see what’s there in the score and take what little they see out of context and turn it into some sort of “objective” war horse. You yourself were talking about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his attempt to create “a brotherhood.” Of Course this poor abused child is going to have a fairy tale like idea of a harmony he never had in his childhood. And yes he was trying to make a performer out of his nephew who he was able to take custody of because he had his connections in the legal system. But at first the nephew really wanted to become a performer, and just the whole tension even then around what had become an entertainment rather than something that’s meant to be healing creates a quite tense situation I can’t say I can completely blame Ludwig for, when his Nephew responded the way he did. As well as not being so nice to his nephew’s mother Ludwig also wasn’t so nice to Frau Hofdemel who Mozart was rumored to have a child with, and who was found with her throat slit and her husband having commited suicide the day after Mozart’s funeral. Beethoven wouldn’t be in the same room with her saying that she was too close to Mozart, but then later on he did get together with her. And I’m not like horrified and opposed to your sarcastic choreographical idea for Beethoven’s Ninth of a station on the side for the unwashed multitudes where they can be “baptized” to become part of the brotherhood for free. Or even having little cherubs running around in tuttus with squirt guns, and when they hit an unwashed person (who responds as if they have been tazed) one sees “new inductee for the brotherhood brought to you by fill in the blank yet to be found filtered water company sponsor for the olympics.” light up on the screen. These creatures could easily emerge out of the mists in the beginning of the whole…. There’s lots of things one can see in the music. I think Beethoven would be amused. There’s also more formal choreography. And I do agree with Landowska….

      • Good God! One teacher I had, a complete proponent of “objectivity” upon playing a debussy prelude under her tutelage was confused that she heard a note there she thought wasn’t right. When I showed her the score she remarked that she had recorded it incorrectly. Then decided that was her “signature,” and then proceeded to advertise her personality telling me how this had happened on other occasions with different students when she thought something was something it wasn’t. And I’m really not going to get into a discussion about something Landowska said, which I can agree with, when it’s directed at two other people as if she directed it to them. I don’t see her posting here.

        • Dr. Marc Villeger says:

          The best I have heard live, in a Calgary home where he was giving a masterclass, was the Austro-Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti suggesting to a 14 y old Yuja Wang to “ignore Chopin’s pedalling” in the opening movement of the Sonata Op. 35…

          • Yes this education is serious stuff. Yuja Wang shared on her twitter site PDQ Bach’s guide to Beethoven’s 5th. Listening to it I learned more than I did from any music listening class ever! This amazing teacher I had also doled out a few chord changes in Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue… LOL…There was an organist here in town that changed the whole organ to sound like something French, and he was playing Bach’s little fugue in G minor with all these high harmonics added on to it like a bunch of nasal offended oboists backed up by piccolos. I guess I had heard about this change to the organ; and really had to laugh when I heard Bach’s Fugue given the treatment. At that time I was around a trance medium and I was so amused I asked him what Bach thought of this: what it sounded like. You don’t have to believe it was Bach, but the remark was: “like something I could have never written.” At a music theory convention they handed out a Bach choral to a bunch of serious music professors to grade. They gave him a B, I think.

          • You see, they weren’t told that it was a Bach choral, they were just handed it to grade with no name on it.

          • Dr. Villeger – Perhaps the advice given by Mr. Kuerti to Wang explains why Kuerti for all
            his expertise ends up in the forsaken land of Alberta . It is so insightful the way some” classical”
            performers can fudge around with a composers work under guise of creative interpreter but try that
            fudging with anything they do and they squeel like stuck pigs . There is a documented exchange
            between a famous violinist and Berlioz as to how a work by Berlioz should go (be “interpreted ” )and
            the simple reply to the virtuoso was ” Just play it as it’s written ” and if we but could apply that
            to most of todays grand virtuosi we could easily dispense with half of them and not miss a beat .

          • Petros Linardos says:

            Did Kuerti give a reason why one should ignore Chopin’s pedalling? Did he really mean that one shouldn’t even look at them? I can see why one could decide against Chopin’s pedalling, especially because a modern Steinway is different from an early 19th century Erard or Pleyel. But one should hopefully make informed choices.

        • Roelef – How to inform you gently – if Landowska were to post anything it would indeed cause chaos
          throughout the world and everything would never be the same. But you are putting us on ? I hope .
          What Mde. Landowska said , was directed to another performer of Bach ‘ during a discussion on
          how to interpret the composer … “You play Bach your way and I’ll play Bach his way ” end of story . You may wait , but I doubt you will read any postings sent in by Mde. Landowska ….. unless ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    • As is the case with such tit for tat nonsense, this has gone completely out of whack. To begin with, the quote of Landowska’s is in regards to a disagreement she had with Pablo Casals; and was simply to put a disagreement to an end. To “paraphrase” this in order to start another useless argument about whether said character knows whether another can play Chopin the way it should be or has the mind for it is taking the whole meaning out of the piquant statement of Landowska. It was in reference to how SHE played Bach, how she wasn’t going to have another decide for her how it should be, and how she responded to another’s criticism; not how she thought another should play Bach, or whether they could; or whether such intrusion means anything, which it doesn’t… The same it is a misrepresentation of any composer or performer of true value when one tries to use what they can give as a means to start belittling others as if this is what the gift of music is about, rather than that it is a part of the inherent human experience that is innate to everyone.

  15. Since we are talking about what a composer actually wrote, I’ll share a couple of things, which are quite disturbing.

    Whether you want to believe this or not (and it doesn’t matter whether you do) it still holds if it never happened. There’s Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 62 number 2. This is the last nocturne he had published during his lifetime, the later opus is posthumous. I was practicing this nocturne for a concert, and happened to be around a spiritualist church and trance mediums. I ended up at the church (where they have a piano to practice on); I was staying with one of the mediums. Since the church was out of town, I had to go to the church for a piano. I don’t need to remember exactly how it happened, but Chopin ended up putting the medium in a trance and, amongst other things, I asked him about this nocturne. In measure 32 and measure 70 there’s a very slight difference in the left hand, although for the rest the measures are the same. This is in the Paderewski edition. I asked Chopin whether this difference was at all like Polish Grammar which has 7 cases in it and is quite complex. I asked whether there was some sort of difference you could compare with grammar.

    His response: He suggested that I play it the way it is in measure 32 at measure 70, so that I can hear why it’s a bit different in measure 70. The way he (Chopin) did this was that the hand of the medium – who was sitting behind the upright piano, and couldn’t have seen the keys if his eyes were open, which they weren’t – his left hand came over around around the piano and sounded the one note of all 88 notes which is the beginning of the difference of the two passages, the way that it is in measure 32 And he told me to play it this way at measure 70. This is of course different than an abstract analyses assigning each part a comparison with some grammatical function. This is doing it the wrong way to find out why it is written the way it was, and why that fits, and why it’s written that way. A dear friend of mine who was a student of Nadia Boulanger told me that she had been reading a recent biography of Chopin and this was indeed how he taught.

    Years pass, and I’m interested in looking at this Nocturne again. But I had lost the Paderewsky Edition or miss-placed it; and to my horror, all the other editions I could find have it the wrong way. They actually have both measures exactly the same; the way Chopin told me to play it to see why it WASN’T written that way. So, I finally got my hands on the Paderewski edition and yes, it’s printed correctly.

    I think you can find a few references Chopin made to publishers which weren’t so positive. Felix Mendelssohn listed having to deal with publishers as one of the things he felt his sister should never have to deal with. Not that her music wasn’t worth publishing, or that even now it’s not highly neglected. But this is disturbing!

    For me, to play it the wrong way is sort of like ruining this particular poem of Emily Dickinson. At the end of this poem and at the end of the nocturne, when it’s played correctly, the music dissolves back to where it came from. The poem says: I offered him a crumb and he unrolled his feathers; and rowed him softer home than oars divide the ocean: Too silver for a seam. It doesn’t NEED a seam! The harmony alters subtly all of it’s own accord and….and this is the last Nocturne Frederic had published in his lifetime. And it’s WRONG in every edition I’ve seen except for the Paderewski edition.

    And who cares anyways about all this stuff. Play it the way it should be and you can forget all of it: “Butterflies, off banks of noon leap plashless as they swim.”

    A Bird, came down the Walk —
    He did not know I saw —
    He bit an Angle Worm in halves
    And ate the fellow, raw,

    And then, he drank a Dew
    From a convenient Grass —
    And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
    To let a Beetle pass —

    He glanced with rapid eyes
    That hurried all abroad —
    They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
    He stirred his Velvet Head. —

    Like one in danger, Cautious,
    I offered him a Crumb,
    And he unrolled his feathers
    And rowed him softer Home —

    Than Oars divide the Ocean,
    Too silver for a seam,
    Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
    Leap, plashless as they swim.

    And now, I find that in Mozart’s C major Sonate KV 545 in the second movement at measure 48, it’s the same thing. In the Urtext edition there’s a b-flat in parenthesis (as if this needed to be corrected and/or added) otherwise it remains a b-natural. In the Peters edition it’s printed as b-flat without the parenthesis. And it’s exactly the same sort of movement of the music back to where it came from where one way it’s let go of and the other it isn’t. It’s not a b-flat! That’s added as a supposed correction that is simply wrong. When it’s played correctly, it becomes that radiant positive energy, that could only be the home in music, in healing that’s available for everyone, and that Mozart had the courage to experience…

    (“Butterflies, off banks of noon leap plashless as they swim.”)

  16. April H. says:

    Well um…I carefully wish for a good luck for his future on DG.
    Music may be “everything” for him, but I am now tired of talking good or bad only about musicality. . . .maybe I am too young and don’t know how scary and complicated the society is.
    As an another human and one loves music, what I just wanna say to him is, please cheer up for an another life there and show an improved performance for “us”, everyone who listen to him.
    And I think all the pianists mentioned above are all great and admirable on their own ways, and. . . .isn’t that’s why we love them and listen to their performance…?
    I want to say sorry to anyone if I annoyed anybody….prior to the replies that will be after my one.
    And also sorry for some grammar-related mistakes, ’cause I’m not a native…

  17. I guess,these stars can be a little restricted by concert promoters/ agents/audience expectation.
    A refreshing exception to this lack of imagination of repertoire was when Lang Lang performed the Tippett Piano Concerto at the Barbican. First attempt, it was a bit uncertain but the following year it was a joy to behold, under the watchful direction of Sir Colin Davis.

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