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S&H Interview

One of the 76 Smartest Philadelphians: Lang Lang in Interview with Marc Bridle

I met Lang Lang on a sultry London day shortly after he had made his Proms debut with the St Petersburg Philharmonic in a performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. This week, Lang Lang makes another debut – at the Wigmore Hall. These debuts could not be more different – one so public it achieved a global radio audience, the other so private as to be strikingly intimate by comparison. His Wigmore debut has long been sold out yet Lang Lang is well aware of the contrasts. He describes the atmosphere of performing at the Proms as something epic, ‘rather like being in the movie Gladiator with all the tigers’. It is an apt description for a concert hall which looks the part – its own arena, the colisseumed stalls and an audience which bays in much the same way.

The concerto performance, which was recorded for future release, was in some ways a perfect symbiosis of ‘Russianness’ for Lang Lang. ‘Playing with them was wonderful – they have a really Russian sound, and I have worked with Temirkanov on a number of occasions – at Carnegie Hall, in St Petersburg and throughout Asia.’ It was Lang Lang who decided that the Rachmaninov Third would be the ideal choice for the Proms, ‘it’s such a great Russian piece and I really wanted to make this work my first concerto disc’. It is a formidable choice because there are so many great recordings of the work available, yet Lang Lang has at his disposal a technique which is incandescent, even if these are perhaps his first thoughts on a piece which will later achieve even greater interpretative depth. Indeed, such is his growing reputation, particularly in the US, that one writer termed him ‘a talent in a million’.

Although he is still only 19 years old, he has achieved a quite extraordinary depth of repertoire for one so young. ‘Since I have been in America I have learnt 35 concertos. But the thing about the Rachmaninov is that that everyone thinks it is the hardest to play and in some ways it is, not only in terms of technique, but also in the way it needs to sound’. This question of technique is not purely for the sake of virtuosity it appears: he may well have chosen the longer, more difficult cadenza for the concerto but for his debut recording he chose to play the revised version of the Second Sonata. ‘I don’t think that version of the Second Sonata is any less difficult than the original; the original has more notes, but the revised is much clearer in its intent.’

It is often the case, indeed music history is littered with examples of it, that a young artist makes his impression through the misfortune of others (Jon Vickers, Joan Sutherland, Sir Colin Davis and Esa-Pekka Salonen are just four who benefited from someone’s indisposition to launch international careers). Some artists, however, will defy the gravity of chance in any case (and Lang Lang, like Kissin, would probably have succeeded with out this boost) but it is not difficult to see that Lang Lang has had his element of luck. It was in August 1999 that he replaced an ailing André Watts to perform the opening movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto at Ravinia and in March 2000 he replaced Richard Goode to give a recital in Chicago at Orchestra Hall. In both cases the reviews were ecstatic.

His admiration for pianists in Rachmaninov is as expected – Horowitz, Rachmaninov himself and his current teacher Gary Graffman. ‘Graffman has helped in many ways, but particularly in terms of repertoire, concertos and recitals. The greatest help was in being made how to think about music. When we have a session together it is not just about do this do that it’s really about looking at a certain passage, being made to think about it. That’s the really important aspect of the teaching. Graffman is a great pianist – he was taught by Horowitz. I think I will learn a lot from him’.

Lang Lang’s debut disc revealed a surprisingly varied repertoire from Haydn to Brahms and Rachmaninov to Balakirev. Similarly, his concerto repertoire is quite wide-ranging. ‘I play the concertos of Liszt, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Grieg, Schumann, some Mozart and have just learnt the Brahms concertos. I find both the Brahms concertos equally difficult, but the Grieg is particularly hard. I thought it was quite a simple piece before I played it. It’s difficult to know what he means – everyone can play it, but knowing how to play it is the difficult thing.’

Lang Lang is part of a generation where live recordings are increasingly in vogue. ‘I very much prefer making live recordings. I feel I create more things in a live performance, and I also think it is more real. I think that in the studio something is lost. It is not that there is generally more taste to a studio recording – even then there are wrong notes – just that I prefer the frisson of live performance and recording.’

That Wigmore Hall debut – which follows on from recitals in Paris and Italy – shrewdly keeps to the same repertoire that he recorded on his debut disc recorded at Tanglewood. ‘In part, this is to boost sales of the discs!’ Yet, Lang Lang holds a venerable attitude towards the Wigmore believing, from hearsay, that it has one of the best acoustics of all recital halls. In part this is true, but as I point out to him it has a dangerous acoustic for a first time pianist in that piano tone has to be projected more gently. He is effortlessly grateful for the advice!

His future is to some extent planned for the next five years – there are concerts around the world (including a Tchaikovsky First next year with the LPO under Eschenbach), recitals, chamber music and so on. ‘The problem is, when you play a lot you don’t have much time for study and all the other things that are important. That’s partly why I try to do other things as often possible – I read a lot of Shakespeare, for example.’ Favourite play, I wonder? ‘Hamlet’, he replies. ‘It’s a tragedy…a BIG tragedy, and I think that helps you play the piano a bit more deeply than you otherwise might’. Forever the pedagogue, I tell him to read King Lear.

Those five years – when everything is planned for him – rather begs the question of how much time he will take to ensure that life moves at his own pace. ‘I have toured and played so widely in Asia, before moving to America, that I think I have quite a bit of experience, but my management are not really pushing me. But I feel I must have time to enjoy life and to be a normal kid, have time off and watch football and so on. You must be able to do the normal things or you’ll end up tired and no life will no longer be enjoyable’. Outside music, he loves cinema, ‘I loved Gladiator’. ‘I play Ping Pong, like watching basketball, American football, buying books to read – normal things.’ With that, he asks me what he should do for the rest of his time in London, particularly what is worth sightseeing. He asks me about the guided bus tours. I tell him about the London Eye…all of a sudden the tables are turned and he is asking me the questions.

Marc Bridle

November 2001

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