Lang vs Li

Posted by: AndrewG

Lang vs Li - 04/27/04 03:01 PM

I knew something like this would pop up sooner or late... from Financial Times:


The yin and yang of China's piano elite

By Timothy Pfaff

Published: April 26 2004 18:52 | Last Updated: April 26 2004 18:52

They are two of the most watched young pianists in the world, both Chinese, both 21, both signed up with the mighty Deutsche Grammophon recording label.

On the face of it, Lang Lang and Yundi Li sound like twins separated at birth. But when serendipitous scheduling, like a chance throw of the I Ching, brought the two performers to San Francisco this month for back-to-back recitals, what emerged most conspicuously were the contrasts between the two.

They have, it turns out, little more in common than being products of what Lang calls the "piano heatwave" that swept through China in the 1980s, when the end of the Cultural Revolution sparked an interest in all things western, from TV to classical music.

I caught up with Lang Lang at a modest Chinese restaurant down the street from the Herbst Theatre, where he had been rehearsing.

After ordering dishes that are not on the menu, he recalled with hilarity that the first time he ever heard a piano was on TV, when Tom, the cat in the cartoon series Tom and Jerry, played Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

Lang, who learned on a Chinese piano that cost half his family's annual income, left his native Manchuria, family in tow, to study with a European-trained Chinese teacher in Beijing. His Asian career took off after he won the Tchaikovsky Young Musician Competition when he was 13. Li, meanwhile, graduated from the accordion to the piano at seven and left his hometown in Sichuan, also with his family, to study in Guangdong Province, where a new economic zone created by Deng Xiaoping gave him the financial leg-up without which his career would have been impossible.

Their storylines diverge tellingly in their approaches to the west. In 1999, Lang, a student at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, stepped in for André Watts at the Gala of the Century Concert in Chicago. More important, he whispered conspiratorially through his chopsticks, around 2.00 am, at a post-gala party after the five-hour concert, Zubin Mehta asked him if he could play "a little something else, say, Bach's Goldberg Variations". "At 2:30 we all went back to the hall," Lang recalls, "and I played it from memory. The next day it was like I had a rocket in my hand. My career took off after that legendary story got out."

In 2000, Li, having placed third in the Liszt Competition in Utrecht the previous year, reluctantly entered the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw. Competing "just for the experience" and "playing for the audience, not the jury," he became the first pianist in 15 years to win the competition's coveted first prize.

Signing contracts with Deutsche Grammophon may have been the last thing the two have done the same way. While Lang has climbed the celebrity-connections ladder, playing about 120 concerts and recitals a year, Li has pursued a more low-profile, deliberate path, playing only half the year and otherwise living the student life in Hanover, where he studies with Arie Vardi.

Although Lang's off-menu ordering was a standing-ovation performance, his relentless self-promotion and indefatigable name-dropping soon proved less appealing than the asparagus beef in oyster sauce. First there was the piano a friend has lent him, the Steinway CD 75 Horowitz often played. "I don't play it much because I'm often travelling." Then came the apologies for being underslept; he had played the Rachmaninov Second Concerto with Valery Gergiev in Moscow the night before. (They will record it, with the Paganini Variations, in July.)

Finally, the crowning assertion, made twice: "I have 40 piano concertos. 4-0." All the adulation and hype - his promoters have called him "the future of classical music" - have led to a predictable groundswell of antipathy.

While many pianophiles take umbrage at the way both Lang and Li are packaged, the off-key overstatements that characterise Lang's promotion have provoked a particularly strong backlash.

Conductors with whom Lang has played have publicly called his musicianship shallow and he has attracted increasingly harsh notices. Reviewing the concert that has become Lang's latest CD, Live from Carnegie Hall, the New York Times said his playing was "often incoherent, self-indulgent and slam-bang crass".

By contrast, the strongest charges levelled against Li are that he can seem "detached" on the stage. His explanation during a soft-spoken backstage interview between performances was quiet but direct: "When I go onstage, I am already in the music.

While I'm presenting myself to the audience, I'm really already at the piano." The genuineness of this remark was obvious in both of his San Francisco recitals.He rushed in from the wings, a quick bow and fleeting smile audience-ward barely preceding his headlong plunge into the four Chopin Scherzos (the repertoire of his next CD) before his tuxedo tails had touched down.

"It's the first notes that are interesting for me," he says in reply to my question about his widely acknowledged spontaneity as a player. "How they catch you is magic. Thank God I have a different feeling with every concert. Of course I have a clear idea about the piece, but I never play the same. If you do, you are not an artist, you are a machine."

In Lang's San Francisco recitals, presented, like Li's, by San Francisco Performances, his technical prowess and almost obsessively manicured tone (not to mention his calculated stage manner) could not disguise that the performances differed little from his CD recordings and showed scant stylistic differences in music that ranged from Haydn to Tan Dun.

Li's two performances of the Liszt Sonata, by contrast, both represented advances on his already masterful recording, and were markedly different in matters of detail. His steely concentration released imaginative, risk-taking interpretations. "If you are in the music, you catch the audience's heart and they can follow you into your playing, into your world," he says. "Beauty of sound is very important for me, but you have to find the sound as much as make it. It comes from inside the piano. If you don't find the right sound, it will not go out, even if you dig deep into the fortes . . . there must be something inside, or else you are just playing on the skin."

The two have largely resisted talking about each other, but Lang has said that "Li's "career is not big yet," adding, "I hope he will have a big career." Only slightly more circumspectly, but with an implied swipe at Li, he told me that, with his own, ready-for-prime-time concert repertoire, "I am ready. If you are young and only have several pieces, one day you will be gone because of that."

Seemingly anticipating the comment (not relayed to him), Li volunteers: "I don't care what people think about how much repertoire I have. I know a lot of pieces. But I want to prepare what I offer audiences each year. Although I like playing concertos very much, it's hard to work together with a conductor with only two days of rehearsal. I think I am strongest in recital.

"Pianists should progress, have time to study, read books and live life to enlarge our minds. I plan to have a long career, so I don't mind going slowly. It is a long way to go."
Posted by: Hank Drake

Re: Lang vs Li - 04/27/04 11:30 PM

Well, isn't LL full of himself?

I'd heard before that Lang Lang had aquired one of Horowitz's pianos--but the gist of those rumors was that he had gotten Horowitz's regualr piano (the one he took to Moscow and used on & off from the 1940s.)

In fact, CD75 was built in 1912. Horowitz used it 1981-1983, a time when he wasn't playing well due to over-medication. I hope that doesn't rub off on Lang Lang!
Posted by: Pwanda

Re: Lang vs Li - 07/06/04 08:25 AM

hmm...i can imagine...all the publicity LL is getting (albeit somewhat deserved) must be embellishing his ego to a distasteful level. I've heard LL play once on chinese tv (im chinese myself) and to be honest, it did sound rather boisterous and pompous...very dazzling but lacking any refinement.

He's having a concert here (Australia) in late August...I've secured tickets already...we'll see how he handles Tchaikowvsky's no.1 \:D
Posted by: bb_pianist

Re: Lang vs Li - 10/24/04 03:13 AM

i hope no one minds me bumping this, but how was the performance in sydney?

i live in sydney myself but havent got into lang lang until very recently,