Lang Lang (piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)
Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor (Tchaikowsky)
Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor (Mendelssohn)
DG 474 291-2
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Although still in his early twenties, Lang Lang is already a veteran of the international concert circuit. A classic wunderkind, Lang Lang amazed and delighted some of the world’s toughest and most cynical critics when, aged a mere seven years, he gave a performance of the complete Etudes of Chopin in Beijing, China. Unlike so many wunderkinder who burn out before maturity, though, Lang Lang is firmly set on an impressive career path. And although superbly equipped, as here evidenced, to perform the great 19th century concerto repertoire, he is as persuasive in his interpretations of Haydn and Mozart, wondrously evident in recordings made in his late teens.
Tchaikowsky’s Piano Concerto in B flat minor is one of the most recorded concertos in history. There’s hardly a pianist of substance who hasn’t placed it on disc – and Lang Lang is one of the latest of these. His account of the work is a compendium of musical marvels, in every way abetted by a near-flawless accompaniment by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presided over by Daniel Barenboim.
The concerto abounds in massive climaxes and Lang Lang presents them with superb assurance with playing that bristles with grandeur. The young Chinese pianist is hardly less persuasive in some of the composer’s most touchingly lyrical episodes into which he breathes life with an understated artistry that is one of his finest attributes as a musician.
Lang Lang is superbly equipped as protagonist in this most adversarial of all concertos, pitting massive blocks of sound and bursts of virtuosity against the might of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Lang Lang does not succumb to the temptation – as others often do – of presenting the first movement at too rapid a pace. On the contrary, his magisterial approach, deliberate pace and leonine tone enhance the inherent nobility of the writing. It was a most effective foil for the outer sections of the Andantino (taken at an unusually, perhaps excessively, slow pace but with ear-seducing, bell-like tone), the gentleness and introspection of the music conveyed to fine degree. In the soloist’s hands, the central, scherzo-like episode comes across as a little miracle of clear definition at whirlwind speed, daredevil-like scamperings that bordered on the incredible. I specially admired the skill with which gossamer-light note streams give way to the return of the quietness which ushered in the slow movement, the movement as a whole an astonishing achievement that will have many more senior pianists looking to their laurels.
In the opening pages of the finale, piano tone tends to edginess, the only reservation in an otherwise irrepressibly joyous presentation.
The outer movements of Mendelssohn’s Concerto in G minor call for considerable digital virtuosity and Lang Lang is more than up to the challenge in a work which, according to the liner notes, he first essayed at the age of seven years. As a work, the first movement, in particular, has not aged well. With its pompous, blaring orchestral flourishes and outdated, faded charms, it ought, like the antimacassars and aspidistras of the Victorian age, to have long since been consigned to history’s dustbin. So it is greatly to the credit of this sensational young Chinese pianist that, through the persuasiveness of his artistry, this Victorian relic sounds infinitely better than it really is, not least due to phenomenal finger agility and, every now and then, a heart-stoppingly beautiful lift to the phrase. This latter quality is much in evidence, too, in the CSO strings in the central Andante (a significantly more substantial piece of music than the first movement) – and the introverted beauty of its measures is exquisitely realised in glowing tone by the soloist. He is matchless in the finale to which he brings prestissimo, gossamer-light agility that make Mendelssohn’s meretricious note-spinning sound far, far better than it in fact is. In this sense, Lang Lang is a musical illusionist of the first order.
Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn