Franz Liszt spent some 26 years composing his "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat Major." The final revision of the score wasn't produced until after the premiere performance in 1855. The piece has since become a hearty perennial on the concert calendar.

(Soundbite of Franz Liszt's "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat Major")

HANSEN: This week, the National Symphony Orchestra gave three performances of the concerto, featuring pianist Yundi Li. Since Li won first prize at the 2000 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw at the age of 18, he has become a much in-demand performer around the world.

His performance at the Kennedy Center Thursday night prompted Washington Post critic Tim Page to write that Li seems able to get whatever he wants from a piano and that it was thrilling pianism on every level. So it is a pleasure to welcome Yundi Li to our studio. Welcome to the studio.

Mr. YUNDI LI (Award-winning Concert Pianist): Thanks.

HANSEN: Nice review. Do you remember the first time you played this concerto all the way through?

Mr. LI: I think that when I was 16 years old that time. I went to a Liszt piano competition in Netherland, and I think that's the first time I played this piece.

HANSEN: How long did it take you to learn it?

Mr. LI: I think pretty fast, because this piece not so, so long. It's quite short, 18 minutes piece. And that time, I think three days or four days and I learned very quick. And also, my teacher says, oh, you are really learning fast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LI: Because I like it, this piece. The energy is exciting and so beautiful. So then I really interest about this.

HANSEN: Yeah. Are you still discovering things about it?

Mr. LI: I like to try and to find out. Each time, when you perform, it's a different color. It's a different way you show to the audience. Of course, every time, when you play in the different concert hall, with also different audience, it might be a different feeling and also a different atmosphere. That's really, you know, that harmony is totally different.

HANSEN: What attracted you to the piece? You say you like it very much. Why?

Mr. LI: I think this piece is quite special. It's a small, a very small concerto. It's quite unique. It's like whole movement. Of course, there are four parts, but really look like a whole movement. And it's developing and a different character and the (Unintelligible) sound(ph) very funny movement in triangle. It's very exciting(ph) in the third movement. That's very special, I think.

(Soundbite of Franz Liszt's "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat Major")

HANSEN: You know, that is something when you're going…

Mr. LI: Right.

HANSEN: …almost one-on-one with a triangle.

Mr. LI: Yeah. Very colorful and very, you know - energy and a very useful energy. I think that I enjoyed. And of course, very brilliant melody and the phrase.

HANSEN: You said that Chopin is your first love. Is there an affinity with this composer, Franz Liszt?

Mr. LI: Of course. I think those most important two Romantic composer, I think. And Chopin is a different character. Chopin is more warm, more - how do I say -more poetic and more melodic and more - I think more intimate. And Liszt is other character but also, for the most Liszt pieces, there are technique, more, you know, not more difficult, more brilliant, more shining passage. So the Chopin, the melody is more inside, I think - more deep, more poetic, more quiet.

HANSEN: This piece requires some powerful playing…

Mr. LI: Right.

HANSEN: …from you and some very subtle shadings, and a lot of stamina, particularly in the fourth movement, when you have to play almost nonstop.

(Soundbite of Franz Liszt's "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat Major")

HANSEN: How do you stay relaxed?

Mr. LI: I think I never think about the relax, but that's you training from all your practicing time - how you use your energy, how to use your hand, keep your finger, you know, more relaxed and then not to get tired.

So that's part of the technique way(ph). And each person, each artist, have a different body, different finger, different arm. So then, you use energy or how - the way you find a way to play this piece should be totally different because it must fit your bodywork. You should really try to feel how your body, how your finger, you feel most comfortable when you play this part. You should try yourself, and this is, nobody can, I think, can tell you.

HANSEN: You recorded this piece.

Mr. LI: Right.

HANSEN: Is there a difference for you when you're playing in concert and playing in a recording studio?

Mr. LI: I think there's a different because of course, for the concert, I have more atmosphere, the communication with the audience. But in a studio, the difference, you have yourself play with the microphone and maybe with also engineer there. And that's a different thing.

When you're play concert - when I play concert, I can feel that moment, something special. I really wish, it's like, I cannot wait to go onstage to play something for them, for my audience. But in a studio, I feel more relaxed, but I sometimes - I more enjoy it to be onstage that I want to find out to keep that energy and exciting moment when I start to record, or start to play.

(Soundbite of Franz Liszt's "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat Major")

HANSEN: How would you compare your musical education in the East with that in the West? Is there a real difference?

Mr. LI: Yes. I think it's - I started piano when I was seven years, quite late. And I feel my Chinese teacher, they are, I think they are very response(ph) for my career, my piano develop, and very care about basic technique, the basic one for your(ph) playing. And in the West, it's more - I think difference is, it's open. It's more open. Why? Because you should develop your own idea, how yourself understand the music, the way you can teach from yourself, not from the teacher. You should find yourself, that's in the West side way.

But in the China, I learned how basic technique, how series(ph) things. And that's really take care from my teacher. And I, of course, I'm glad I have two different training of my piano career.

HANSEN: What are your thoughts on the value of competitions for young players?

Mr. LI: I think competitions is one of the way to show young people's talent, because that's one, first things, I think it's through the stage you can play for the public. You have no chance to do your private or your own concert since you have not famous, since you have no audience. That competition can bring in that stage through this chance to you to show how you face with the public.

But of course, competitions not mean you will success, you will have the great future. But I think that's still the one of the steps for the young people. You can try your energy, you can try how are you onstage. You can try - you can compete for yourself, not compete for your other people.

HANSEN: You're traveling around the world - I don't think I'd want to count the number of stamps on your passport - performing with world-class orchestras. You're still learning, you're still training. What do you do for fun?

Mr. LI: Before, when I was in high school, I'd like table tennis. I'm very good for that. But now, I have no time for, you know, and no partner to play that. And I like swimming. I like traveling. I like to sometime take some photo when I was traveling outside. So I have a lot of interests. I like the - I liked cars since I was a little boy. I think, I don't know, maybe every boy like car.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Uh-huh, do you have a car?

Mr. LI: Yes, you see, I have a Ferrari.

HANSEN: You have a Ferrari?

Mr. LI: Yes, in my country. I just got last year, so quite special. But I have no time to drive because I'm always traveling around, and maybe one week per year to drive my car -

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LI: But I really enjoy it.

HANSEN: Pianist Yundi Li performed Liszt's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 with the National Symphony Orchestra this past week at the Kennedy Center here in Washington. His recording of the concerto is available on the Deutsche Grammophon label. Thank you very much for coming in, and much luck to you.

Mr. LI: Thanks.

(Soundbite of Franz Liszt's "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat Major")

HANSEN: To hear more of Yundi Li playing this concerto, go to our Web site at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of Franz Liszt's "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E flat Major")

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