Yundi Li: 'I think I'm not a normal artist'

Two young Chinese performers are taking the world of classical music by storm. But while the international superstar Lang Lang thrives in the spotlight, Yundi Li prefers to let the purity of his pianism do the talking

Which famous Chinese pianist was born in 1982? Easy: Lang Lang. But another Chinese pianist was also born in that year, whose victory aged 18 in the Warsaw Chopin competition earned him the title in China of "Prince of the Piano". Step forward Yundi Li, gracefully reserved where Lang Lang is punchily ebullient: this pair are now Chinese pianism's sun and moon. And like those spheres, they have never met (apart from one chance encounter in an airport lounge). They are signed to different labels: Lang Lang is proudly championed by Deutsche Grammophon, while Yundi Li – formerly brandished by that company in the same way – will this month make his debut as a star for EMI. But while Lang Lang's publicity machine has broadcast his story to every home in the Western world, Yundi Li's is virtually terra incognita.

The way Western classical music took root in Yundi's infant soul was as mysterious as its start-stop-start implant in the Chinese national psyche. That story began in 1601, when an Italian Jesuit named Matteo Ricci sailed into Beijing with the gift of a clavichord for the emperor. It was designed to win hearts and minds for Jesus, but the emperor found the music it embodied intriguing: when other Jesuits installed church organs and set up string ensembles, Western music took root.

A century later, Emperor Kangxi learnt to play the harpsichord, and a century after that, Emperor Qianlong found an ingenious way of melding the traditions, by having his home-made eunuchs sing the castrati roles in an Italian opera. For the next 100 years, missionaries, traders, and diplomats continued this musical imperialism, but what gave Western music its real lift-off was the influx of Russian refugees – Jews and Tsarists – after the Bolshevik revolution: in the 1930s, the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra was one of the smartest ensembles in the world. The communists first smiled on their home-grown "Western" musicians, then persecuted them for championing the music of capitalism: Debussy and Beethoven were decadent, so those who played them were decadent too. Violinists and pianists had their fingers and wrists broken; conservatory professors were induced to commit suicide. Only when Western music was deemed to symbolise "modernity' did Chinese communism smile on it once more.

As the son of a steel worker in provincial Chongqing, Yundi Li was born into a world permeated by Chinese folk music and pop, but at the age of three, he was suddenly entranced by the sound of an accordion. His parents bought him one, and two years later he won a competition with it. Then he chanced to hear someone practising the piano. "I had never heard a piano before," he says. "And this sound, with its rich range of colour, was instantly very special for me. I hung outside the window for half an hour, drinking it in."

His words tumble out quickly and eagerly, with self-deprecating charm. The contrast with Lang Lang – for whom an interview is a tiresome formality prior to the more serious business of a photo-shoot – could not be greater.

Had he been raised in Britain, Lang Lang would have been put on the abused-child register for the way his raveningly ambitious father treated him – throwing his toys out of the window when he was five, and at one point ordering him to jump to his death from a balcony when he'd been rejected by a teacher. Yundi Li's parents, on the other hand, were devotedly supportive: his mother gave up her job to look after him while he studied at the Sichuan conservatory, but she and his father seem to have put him under no pressure: "They just tell me to enjoy my life." He stayed from eight to 18 with the same teacher, Professor Dan Zhaoyi, during which time he won a string of competitions, including the Stravinsky Youth Competition when he was 13, the Utrecht Liszt competition at 17, and the Warsaw one the following year.

Video: Yundi Li perform's Chopin's Nocturne No2

By this time he was on the Chinese government's radar, and was selected for its four-man squad to compete in Poland. He says he went through the competition on a high, buoyed by audience support and hardly noticing when he'd actually won. "Suddenly I was a national hero, meeting our prime minister and president, a household name." Now other conservatoires were queuing to get him on board, but he settled for tuition in Hanover from an Israeli professor he admired, with whom he studied for five more years.

Meanwhile, Deutsche Grammophon had signed him and began to spend a fortune marketing the CDs he was now starting to record, of Liszt, Mozart, Schumann, Prokofiev, and above all Chopin to critical acclaim. America and China were the big promotional targets, with DG's imagery first styling him as an androgynous virgin, then as an Asian drug baron; his likeness has been installed in the Shanghai Madame Tussaud's, and he has been appointed "image ambassador" for Super Boy – China's answer to Pop Idol. "They want to hold me up as an example of what Chinese children can achieve, so I play for them, to show that the dream is not so far off," he says. "With talent and hard work, your dream can come true."

He is also sponsored by Rolex, adding the virtuous proviso that, for their side of the bargain, they must subsidise music teaching in rural China. "I told them I did not want to do promotions for them – I just play the music I love. I am more interested in communication than promotion. That is why I am now happy to talk to journalists." At one point, he says, interviews were a trial, as he couldn't bear the "misrepresentations" which resulted. "Sometimes I just don't want to talk." Is this, I wonder, why Deutsche Grammophon dropped him? "No, that was simply a business decision by my management." He pauses, then offers an amused observation: "I think I'm not a normal artist. My moods are not always the same." Perfectly normal, I would have thought, but at this point his EMI publicist, who has been monitoring the conversation, eyes him beadily. I sense a backstage story here (only room for one Chinese piano superstar on the DG list?) which later enquiries fail to elucidate.

But Yundi sounds relaxed about his ubiquitous rival: "He is very warm, a very shining boy. But we have different philosophies, and we are made in a different way. He likes playing in big stadiums, but I like small gatherings, small details." Chopin, he says, is his chief role-model. "He did just one thing – writing for the piano – and was the best at it. And his life was very high quality too – everything elegant, with fine clothes and beautiful apartments." Like yours? "Maybe. I must have the right designs for the height of my rooms. And I like powerful cars." Big Mercs and Ferraris, to be precise. Would Chopin have had a Ferrari? "I think so." Do you seek solitude as he did? "Quite a lot. Alone in my flat, I like to drink tea in the Chinese way – with all the right details, and the right ceremony, to give myself quiet focus, with maybe some jazz in the background. And I like listening to Verdi, with good red wine."

As the picture of this aristocratic young man becomes clear, one senses the problem he poses for his would-be promoters. He presents reason rather than pizzazz, and restraint at the keyboard rather than the sighing, eye-rolling histrionics of a Lang Lang; Yundi Li's disdain for the publicity game is all too apparent. Is he a better pianist than Lang Lang? The latter has a wonderful talent, but he's in danger of dissipating it with his 100- Steinway stunts in the showbiz stratosphere. As Yundi Li's fine new CD of Chopin's Nocturnes demonstrates – and as we shall doubtless discover in his forthcoming Chopin recital at the Royal Festival Hall – what he has to offer is exquisite pianism, pure and simple.

Yundi Li plays the Royal Festival Hall on 16 March; his Chopin Nocturnes are released by EMI.

Play it again, Qian: China's brightest stars

Yundi Li and Lang Lang head a growing number of outstanding Chinese pianists, including Wu Qian, 25, and Yuja Wang, 22. Both began their training in Chinese conservatories but spent their teens in the West – Wu at the Menuhin school and Royal Academy, Wang at the Curtis Institute – and their approaches to music are Westernised and intellectual. Both are articulate about art and literature, as well as music, and both have notably independent minds. Their recorded repertoire overlaps in Liszt, but Wang tends towards the translucency of Ligeti, and is currently recording Stravinsky and Ravel, while Wu is most expressive with Schumann.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'