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Their ruinous rivalry

Two young pianists with technique to burn lose focus in allowing their record company to pit them against each other.

April 02, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

IN one corner, Lang Lang. Born in 1982 in Shenyang, China, he's knocked out Rachmaninoff on countless occasions. Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Chopin never have a chance once he gets his mitts on them. Last month at Walt Disney Concert Hall, he gave Bartok a going-over not soon to be forgotten. Charismatic poet and flashy dancer, Lang Lang's the champ.

In the other corner, the steely challenger, Yundi Li. Also born in 1982 and from Chongquing, China. He's a world-class Chopin and Liszt slayer. He's fast as lightning, and his aim is deadly.

Each fighter has in his corner bloodthirsty music management. The record label Deutsche Grammophon is the match sponsor. The stakes are high, and the gloves are off -- they have to be, the contestants are pianists. Somebody's bound to get hurt, and I can hardly ....

Hey, wait a minute! It's not supposed to be like this!

The rivalry between two young pianists just out of protege puberty has already gone too far. Nothing good -- unless you think short-term record company profits are all that matter -- can come from it.

That Lang and Li are adversaries is no secret in the music industry. Lang is the hottest young pianist around and has been for some time. But the ambitious Li is doggedly nipping at his ankles.

I know it can seem cheap to bring up such matters in polite classical-music society, and most musical journalists have tried to be as circumspect as they can be. It is all too easy to slip into cultural stereotyping, to wound fragile young egos. Two years ago in the Boston Globe, Richard Dyer did courteously confront Li with the question and Li just as courteously skirted it, noting that the pianists had only recently met. "I think we are friends," he said.

The fact is, whatever these young men feel about each other, a commercial rivalry is being fueled by their keepers. San Franciscans could hardly have been expected not to notice when the pianists played back-to-back recitals over two nights in 2004. But by then both were already high-profile Deutsche Grammophon artists, so the spirited scene was already well set.

This year the ante was substantially raised with DG's competitive release of recital discs by Lang and Li that include the same Mozart sonata -- K. 330 -- and very similar programs. Lang plays Schumann's "Scenes From Childhood," Li takes on Schumann's "Carnaval." Lang concludes with fingers flying through Vladimir Horowitz's arrangement of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Li races through Liszt's "Rhapsodie Espagnole." The main difference in repertory is that Li plays two sparkling Scarlatti sonatas, whereas Lang tackles the more substantial Chopin Third Sonata -- but he needs a bonus disc to make all that music fit. The bigger name, he gets it.

Lang's, it turns out, is his least interesting recording, while Li's is his finest by some measure. Comparing them, I'd say Li, a normally less compelling (though no less accomplished) player than Lang, may be closing in on his opponent. But both pianists are at awkward points in their careers, and frankly we need neither disc.

Let's start with Lang. He is, without doubt, a tremendous talent and an abused one. His big break came in 2000, when he substituted at the last minute for Andre Watts in a performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. The critical response was ecstatic.

He looked younger than his 17 years. He was adorable, and his technique was beyond belief. Managers wanted a piece of this action. Why wait for him to undergo the long and uncertain process of growing up and finding out who he really was as an artist? He wouldn't stay cute forever, after all.

Before long, Lang began playing up the endearing factor, seeming happy to do anything for audience approval. He quickly learned that he could never produce enough grimacing and gyrating, stretching musical phrases like taffy, or playing so fast his fingers were all a blur. But now Lang's early champions were repulsed. Growing up fast, he wasn't quite so cute anymore.

Lang's nadir was probably his Carnegie Hall debut recital in 2003, when he was 21, which DG recorded live. The playing was showy in the extreme. But it was never dull, never without personality (even if a somewhat obnoxious personality at times).

For his next recital album, "Memory," which was made in the studio, Lang has gone in the opposite direction, toning it down too far. The program, he notes in the booklet, is a personal exploration of the music he grew up with. But Lang's youth was not that long ago, and he hardly shows himself ready to be rethinking music that he does, in fact, need to rethink. Rather a kind of sentimental preciousness creeps in. Tempos tend to be slow and dreamy, which is particularly toxic in Mozart.

But some things you can't take away from Lang. His tone is pure gold, and his liquid phrasing still approaches poetry. His flamboyance shows through now and then, as in the ferociously difficult Horowitz/Liszt arrangement. It is a lot of shallow fun.

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