Tuesday 3 December 2013

Phenomenal performances of Prokofiev and Bartok concertos from Lang Lang on a new release from Sony Classical

From his origins in a small Chinese town, Shenyang, where he started playing the piano aged three, winning the Shenyang Competition and giving his first public recital by the time he was five, entering Beijing’s Central Music Conservatory aged nine, winning first prize at the Tchaikovsky International Young Musicians’ Competition and playing the complete Chopin Etudes at the Beijing Concert Hall at 13, before moving to the US to attend the world famous Curtis Institute of Music Philadelphia, USA, studying with the great piano teacher Gary Graffman, to make a dramatic last-minute substitution for the famous Andre Watts to perform in the “Gala Of The Century”, playing a Tchaikovsky concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of seventeen, Lang Lang www.langlang.com has risen to being one of the world’s best known pianists.

He has performed at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where more than four billion people around the world viewed his performance, the Last Night of the Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall and the Liszt 200th birthday concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Charles Dutoit which was broadcast live in more than 300 movie theatres around the United States and 200 cinemas across Europe.

Lang Lang has worked with some of the world’s greatest artists, from conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel and Sir Simon Rattle, as well as artists from outside of classical music including dubstep dancer Marquese “nonstop” Scott, king of the crooners Julio Inglesias and jazz titan Herbie Hancock. He builds cultural bridges between East and West, frequently introducing Chinese music to Western audiences, and vice versa. He has played sold out concerts in every major city in the world and is the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic orchestras.

In December 2007, Lang Lang was guest soloist at the Nobel Prize concert in Stockholm, an event attended by Nobel Laureates and members of the Royal Family. He performed as soloist in Oslo for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony and concert for President Barack Obama. He undertakes important work for charities such as UNICEF www.unicef.org and through his own Lang Lang International Music Foundation http://langlangfoundation.org with the New Yorker calling him ‘the world’s ambassador of the keyboard’ and Time Magazine including him in the ‘Time 100’, the magazine’s annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Given that this is only a glimpse of the scope of Lang Lang’s musical and charitable commitments, it is obvious that he is one of the world’s leading pianists and cultural figures. But it seems that his immense popularity can work against him in some way with Jasper Rees writing in the Daily Telegraph in a heading to an interview with the pianist ‘Lang Lang: piano star the critics love to hate.’

Yet Michael Church of The Independent wrote, concerning Lang Lang’s Chopin album released last year, of his exhilarating blend of poetry and power, something I totally agreed with in my review of 30th October 2012 when I wrote of his ‘phenomenal technique combined with his sense of poetry and sensitivity and great sense of authority’ going further to make the very point that ‘such is the publicity surrounding virtuoso pianist Lang Lang that it would be easy to overlook this phenomenal pianist’s gifts as a superb musician.’

Sony Classical www.sonymasterworks.com has now issued a recording, of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto coupled with Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto, featuring Lang Lang with Simon Rattle www.simonrattle.com and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra www.berliner-philharmoniker.de that ought to cast aside any doubts concerning this pianist’s musicianship.

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In many ways, of course, this partnership looks like something of a dream team for these works particularly as Lang Lang has had these works in his repertoire for a number of years before deciding to commit them to disc.

Sergei Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, Op.26, written between 1917 and 1921, has since become a standard work of the repertoire. Even Prokofiev himself took the challenges of this concerto seriously with the composer Kabalevsky writing ‘In 1937, when I was staying at the Hôtel de l’Europe in Leningrad I heard one day the familiar sound of a piano in the neighbouring apartment…after a while I recognised some passages from the Piano Concerto No.3 of Prokofiev…being played so slowly, and certain isolated fragments were being repeated so many times…finally, on the third day I met Prokofiev in the lift, my neighbour was none other than he. I lost no time in enquiring why he was practising, so studiously, a work he had for years been playing with remarkable ease…Prokofiev replied ‘’…everyone knows the Third – that is why I must know it perfectly.’’ ‘

Lang Lang has all the necessary qualities for this repertoire and in the opening Andante – Allegro he shows some well sprung rhythmic playing, stunning accuracy, flair and panache that give the music a feeling of breadth and daring. There is no lack of poetry with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic adding so much to Lang Lang’s exquisite playing in the quieter moments. Nothing is unnecessarily rushed, with beautifully limpid playing in the quieter central section. The way he plays the rising and falling scales towards the end of the movement and those staccato, brittle phrases is wonderful and there is a truly amazing coda.

In the Tema. Andantino – Variation I – V – Tema there is a beautifully paced, languid Andantino, at times taken rather more slowly than usual, allowing some beautifully crystalline passages to emerge. When the music erupts, it sounds quite right in comparison with the gentler controlled opening. Lang Lang, Rattle and the BPO show lovely poetic sensitivity in the central rather withdrawn variation. One can sense the pianist and conductor really at one as the music rushes forward before the subdued coda.

There are passages in the Allegro ma non troppo where the ensemble between soloist and orchestra is astonishing. When the slow theme returns in the woodwind the BPO are magnificent. Later Lang Lang’s gentle, fluent, trickling scales are a wonder. I defy anyone not to be impressed by Lang Lang’s phenomenal playing as the music leads to the coda.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945) wrote his Piano Concerto No.2, Sz95, BB101 during 1930-31. In the Allegro, Lang Lang’s superb control of rhythm, phrasing and dynamics always allows the structure to be retained and made clear. Of course Rattle and his fine players help enormously in this. Lang Lang and Rattle pace the first movement so well, each accelerando and ritardando, just right. And what a cadenza – just wonderful. The brass of the BPO are first rate as the coda arrives.

In the second movement, Adagio – Presto – Adagio, Lang Lang and Rattle catch the mood of Bartok’s strange nocturnal adagio so well. There is a threatening feel to the piano’s quiet phrases, subtly pointed up by the timpani. The BPO have a lovely quiet sonority and, as the piano’s heavier chords appear, Lang Lang’s control of dynamics is really impressive. The Presto emerges as something of a shock after the intense introversion of the Adagio. Lang Lang and the orchestra are quite superb in this section. When the Adagio returns, Bartok’s percussive piano writing achieves a strange beauty in the hands of this pianist with the strings of the BPO giving superb support.

With the Allegro molto, Lang Lang’s impressive technique is to the fore, those lovely sprung phrases with the Berliners in full flight, the woodwinds and brass sounding out. There is some astonishing playing as the movement continues, with chamber like accuracy from the soloist and orchestra.

It is easy to sit back and marvel at Lang Lang’s technique but if one listens carefully there is so much more behind the virtuosity. With such a phenomenal technique Lang Lang makes this music sound easy, but it is his sensitivity and sheer musicality that really impress.

The recording made in the Philharmonie, Berlin is excellent and there are informative notes by former Gramophone Editor, James Jolly.

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