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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23 (1874)
Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito
Andantino semplice – Prestissimo – Tempo I
Allegro con fuoco

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25 (1830)
Molto allegro con fuoco
Presto – Molto allegro e vivace

Lang Lang (piano)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim
Recorded Feb. 2003: Chicago, Symphony Centre, Orchestra Hall,
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 474 291-2 [59’26]

The general reception to Lang Lang’s recorded output thus far appears to suggest that microphones held up to his Steinway fail to accommodate his halo. Yet his astonishing rendition (‘like a possessed devil’ wrote Marc Bridle) of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto earlier this year at the Royal Festival Hall, and a similarly accomplished performance at the BBC Proms this year augured well for this release. So it was into this unpredictable climate of mixed expectations that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim launched into those immortal chords, heralding the debut recording of the 20-year old pianist for Deutsche Grammophon.

Those who have heard Lang Lang perform this piece in concert will recall the improvisatory quality to his playing, outlandish gestures and total pianistic command allied to a sensitive ear for ensemble. By comparison this studio recording is considerably restrained and lacks the dramatic impetus he has demonstrated elsewhere. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of recording the concerto in an environment where adrenaline doesn’t quite reach down to the fingertips. Or perhaps the conductor insisted on emphasising the nobility and grandeur of the piece at the expense of generating excitement and fist-shaking virtuosity. Whatever the reason, the first movement feels disappointingly uncommunicative; and although things get better in the second and third movements - in particular, the impressive whirlwind prestissimo section of the second movement - the overall impression is that it has simply served to provide a solid template for Lang Lang to set alight in future performances.

In their seminal volume, Music for the Piano, Friskin and Freundlich describe Mendelssohn’s G minor piano concerto as possessing all the composer’s virtues, containing, ‘idiomatic piano writing with a great deal of technical variety, mastery of design, and expert scoring for the combination of solo instrument and orchestra.’

Lang Lang was just 7 years old when he first performed this concerto and his decision to pair it with the Tchaikovsky was in order to ‘show(s) another side of what an artist can do’. The Mendelsssohn arguably does not require the soloist to harness the latent energy of an audience to the same extent as the Tchaikovsky and, as a consequence, the overall performance is more successful. The first movement receives an authoritative, if not totally authentic workout, full of snapping octaves and piston-like fingerwork, but I would have liked to hear more Chopin and less Czerny, especially in the flowery semi-quaver passages which decorate the score. Once again, the later movements receive more involvement and, in the playful third movement, Lang shows us some of that infectious music-making that characterise his concerts. Barenboim and the CSO provide stoic support throughout.

Lang Lang is undoubtedly an extra-ordinarily gifted pianist but to describe him as such on the basis of this or any other of his recordings surely cannot be justified. For the Tchaikovsky, there are a number of more rewarding alternatives; sample, for example, Argerich’s recordings on DG with Dutoit (1970, studio) or with Abbado (1994, live). Stephen Hough has recorded a delightful disc of Mendelssohn’s works for piano and orchestra with his accustomary suavity on Hyperion, while Jean-Yves Thibaudet has put down on disc a contrasting, feverish performance on Decca. If you want to find out what all the fuss is about Lang Lang try to catch him at his next concerto performance in London, which will be in June 2004 at the Royal Festival Hall. He is due to play the first of Beethoven’s piano concertos with the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski.

Michael McMillan

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