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China's young piano prince


10:19, September 21, 2012

Li's new album provides a refreshing yet restless interpretation of three of Beethoven's most celebrated piano sonatas. (Zou Hong / China Daily)

Li Yundi, one of the country's most revered young pianists, has released a new album, Beethoven. Chen Nan finds out about the significance of the album.

Who is the best - Lang Lang or Li Yundi?

Over the last decade, it has one of the most frequently posed questions. The two young Chinese pianists, both born in 1982, have been taking the world of classical music by storm.

"People love to have heroes and take sides. I don't mind," chuckles Li, who was asked about the comparison once again in Beijing, where he promoted his first album, Beethoven, since returning to classical music giant Deutsche Grammophon, which is also home to Lang.

"We are totally different people, and it shows in our music," says Li.

In terms of performing style, Lang is extroverted and flamboyant, while Li is introverted and restrained, which earns him the nickname "Prince of the Piano".

While Lang's publicity agent has broadcast his story to the Western world and the pianist thrives in the spotlight, Li prefers letting the purity of his piano skills do the talking.

The cover of Li's album shows a stern, unsmiling face. His music provides a refreshing yet restless interpretation of three of Beethoven's most celebrated piano sonatas - Moonlight, Appassionata and Pathetique.

The opening chord of Pathetique, he says, is like a thunderstorm, which conveys more anger than pathos. The serene Moonlight sonata is particularly smooth and tranquil. In Appassionata, the longest of the three, Li captures the composer's vigor and freshness.

Li himself chose the three piano sonatas and recorded the album in Berlin together with his team.

He calls it the perfect time for him to play Beethoven as he celebrates his 30th birthday in October.

"Thirty years old means a musical continuation and a fresh new start for me," he says. "I've experienced many things musically and personally. The album is like a birthday gift and I interpret the three piano sonatas based on my own experiences."

"Although Beethoven composed those sonatas hundreds of years ago, people today can still share his private emotions of happiness, suffering and desperation," he adds.

After rising to fame at 18 as the youngest and first Chinese pianist to win the 14th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2000, Li joined Deutsche Grammophon, recording the music of Chopin, Liszt, Prokofiev and Ravel, before continuing his exploration of Chopin with EMI.

"Chopin is my favorite composer and winning the Chopin Piano Competition has meant the world to me as well as my career. There's also a lot of lyricism and beauty in Liszt's works that I have found a lot of affinity for. Apart from these two composers, I also have great admiration for other masters such as Beethoven, Prokofiev and Ravel," he says.

With parents who were steel workers in Chongqing in southwest China, Li learned accordion at 3 and piano at 7.

He attributes his style to his idol Chopin, who "was very patriotic toward his native country Poland" and "so subtle to the point of 'restrained' that there's almost a sense of oriental culture to it".

The pianist says that fame has not changed him. "I just play the music I love. Like this album, my love for Beethoven's music drove me to find out the stories behind each sonata and to understand the composer," he says. The recording took the team just three days, which excited him as always.

"I also like visiting a lot of different countries and seeing a lot of friends," he says, adding that among his good friends are composer Tan Dun and conductor Yu Long. "Although we are of different age, music connects us. I remember talking to 77-year-old Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, we felt as if we were of the same age. Music makes us young. This kind of communication gives me a lot of energy to continue, to bring more great music, more great performances."

With the new album, Li is planning to have concerts in Japan and Korea, among others. He also intends to perform solo recitals and cooperate with symphony orchestras.

During his spare time, Li says he enjoys cooking and chatting with friends. "I'm happy with the way my career is shaping up. I don't want to rush into anything, especially music," he adds.

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