The toast of national leaders

Glenn Gould's love/hate relationship with Steinway pianos is the stuff of legend and also of a very entertaining book. In the past you could judge a pianist's career prospects by the piano manufacturer they were signed to, but all that has changed and today you judge their prospects by the agent they are signed to. So the following press release makes interesting reading:
EMI Classics has signed the superlative young Chinese pianist Yundi, formerly known as Yundi Li, winner of the 14th International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Appropriately, Yundi’s first EMI release (due out in the U.S. on April 6) will be the complete Chopin nocturnes, issued to commemorate the composer’s 200th birthday in 2010. Together Yundi and EMI Classics plan to record Chopin’s complete works for solo piano.
Early in his career Yundi, who incidentally is a Steinway artist, was signed to Columbia Artists Management Inc. CAMI are the 800 pound gorilla of classical music with a client roster that includes Lang Lang, Valery Gergiev and James Levine. But several years ago Yundi moved agencies to Askonas Holt, it is suggested elsewhere that this move may have been precipitated by Lang Lang threatening to throw his toys out of the CAMI pram if he had to share them with a rival.

But being managed by Askonas Holt is no hardship; in fact they are the 799 pound gorilla of classical music with Gustavo Dudamel, Andrew Davis, the Berlin Philharmonic, and Philharmonia Orchestras among their clients. Yundi's career to date has certainly been impressive, including performing with Gustavo Dudamel and recording with Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia and also with the Berlin Philharmonic. Askonas Holt's other conductors include Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado and Daniel Barenboim, and, like all the big agents, they also manage orchestra tours. So the prospects for Yundi look very good indeed.

I haven't heard any Yundi CDs or concerts. But I did come back from Paris recently with EMI's 5 CD box of Georges Cziffra's Chopin recordings which I bought in FNAC for just 15 euros. That pricing indicates that with back catalogues stuffed full of excellent Chopin and Mahler recordings anniversary price deflation will be the next life-threatening disease to hit the record industry. Already Simon Rattle's 'premium' Mahler cycle (Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic & CBSO) is selling in the UK for around £2 per CD. Which is almost exactly the price I was paying per LP in the early 1970s for Bernard Haitink's and Georg Solti's first Mahler recordings. A quick Google tells me that the £2 I paid for Haitink's Mahler 1 in 1971 is worth around £23 today. Which means the real price of recorded Mahler has dropped by more than 90% in four decades. I wonder how much agents' and top conductors' fees have dropped by over the same period? As I keep saying ...

But back to Chopin. The EMI Pathé recordings in the box, which do not include the Nocturnes, span the period 1959-1979 and come in mellow analogue sound captured in the Salle Wagram, Paris and Salle Garnier, Monte Carlo. Cziffra's style, seen to extreme below in a Chopin Étude, was virtuosic yet poetic, whereas the Askonas Holt website seen above talks of Yundi's 'precise, crystalline technique'.

But there are even greater contrasts. EMI Classics' press release proudly tells us that -
[Yundi] is the toast of national leaders and has been invited to perform for the Chinese ambassador in Washington, D.C. and for the president of China, Hu Jin Tao, at Government House in a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China.
By contrast Georges Cziffra, who was the son of a Hungarian Roma, had a less comfortable relationship with national leaders and suffered three years of imprisonment and forced labour after a failed attempt to escape from Soviet controlled Hungary. Here is Cziffra's own description of that ordeal:
While in prison, I had been accorded the privilege of transporting blocks of stone. My muscles, stretched to the limit and hardened, could no longer withstand hours of daily practice. Not even my will-power was what it had been. In order that my fingers, swollen by work of a very different nature, could gradually grow used to the piano again, I was obliged to continue wearing wristbands to hold my joints in place and lessen the pain. I was to wear these accessories for quite a time to come. After leaving prison, my hands needed four months’ physiotherapy before I could go into Budapest to start looking for work all over again.
Sorry to repeat myself again. But in classical music, as elsewhere, there is no such thing as a free lunch. And talking of human rights, where is the Chinese Shostakovich?

* The text of Georges Cziffra's autobiography Cannons and Flowers, from which the extract above is taken, is available online, for which we owe a big thanks to MusicWeb International. A 40 CD box of Cziffra's complete studio recordings made for EMI between 1956-1986 is available for around £100.

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Garth Trinkl said…
“And talking of human rights, where is the Chinese Shostakovich?”

I could be wrong, but I don’t believe that the strictly Western orchestral sociologies were comparable in pre-Cultural Revolution China (and pre- and post - WWII Japan, for that matter). (Shostakovich died in 1975 at about the time of the height of the Chinese 'Cultural Revolution' terror.)

Also note (you may have already done so) the lastest project of one of several U.S.- based younger Chinese composers:
Pliable said…
Garth, compromise seems to be the mantra for anything connected with China and the performing arts.

Tibet alone is enough to prove that compromise is playing into the hands of a Chinese government that has made little progress in human rights, but there are so many other examples.

Things must be bad, even Google has got the message -

Surely there is an alternative to the so-called cultural diplomacy practiced so zealously by the creative community inside and outside China?
Pliable said…
Garth has sent through a better link to the Kronos, Tan Dun, Wu Man/David Harrington/Chen Shi-Zheng works -

I would also point out that I am out on a limb in questioning the efficacy of compromise with China. H.H. the Dalai Lama himself advocates compromise with the Chinese over Tibet, something that has increasingly frustrated some of his followers.

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