It seems almost a shame to give cutting-edge recording
quality to an artist that, these days at least, simply does
not seem to deserve it. Stephen Hough’s wonderful set of the
complete concertos plus Paganini Rhapsody (CDA67501/2)
has set a standard now that is hard for newcomers to beat. Lang
Lang comes nowhere near.
The coupling of the two most popular Rachmaninov works
for piano and orchestra is a useful one, but one that leaves
a short playing time; just over an hour, leaving another twenty
minutes spare. Having said that, by the end of this I had had
more than enough.
These recordings come from a Summer concert in Finland that followed a Spring tour of Russia, so the performances should have been in the blood of
The Second Concerto is
placed first on the disc. The first question to strike the listener
is just how slow this is going to be? The famous chords
are as un-bell-like as they come, and lose all sense of foreboding.
The recording, though, is exceptional, the piano superbly caught,
wonderful depth to the orchestra, great placing of the instruments.
Yet there are some questions – the important viola line at 3’00
in is barely audible – why? This is because of the recording’s
concentration on the piano. It actually sounds unrealistic –
and therefore off-putting. A word of praise - my first so far,
I believe - to the solo horn player, whose climactic A flat
(played A flat, sounding D flat) in his solo blossoms forth
Gergiev it is who impresses in the slow movement. The
opening string bars are shaped like a natural inhalation and
exhalation. Orchestral detailing is gorgeous. Contrast this
with Lang Lang’s bare-octave statement of the theme, devoid
of musical interest in the present company. Lang Lang almost
matches the liquid clarinet’s line at around 5’40 and to be
fair his cadenza does lay a claim to the attention. But over
and over again the ear is drawn to the Mariinsky Orchestra’s
affinity with this music. Try the silken violins around 10’30,
positively singing the melody to Lang Lang’s rather plonky accompaniment.
Surprisingly the orchestra is very slightly sluggish
at the beginning of the finale, and here it is Lang Lang that
ignites. The glittery music suits his persona, as a multitude
of his recitals have attested. It does not take long for him
to run out of steam (read ‘ideas’) however, and the music sags
before it gets going, almost threatening to stop from time to
time. I literally found myself yawning as the music droned
on. Not Rachmaninov’s fault of course – there are plenty of
vital accounts to tempt your pocket. The final flourishes are
marginally exciting, but only a tiny little bit. The blaze of
the orchestra at 10’56 comes far too late.
So after that almost unmitigated disaster, would the
Rhapsody fare better? Yes, is the answer, although no
way is it truly recommendable. Maybe this is closer to the kind
of music Lang Lang can play. He doesn’t strike me as too versatile,
so there is very definitely a kind as opposed to several.
Good on DG for tracking every single Variation. Again
one can only marvel at Gergiev’s ear for orchestral sonority
and his clear rapport with his players, who remain alive to
his every command. There are things to admire here – the ‘Tempo
di minuetto’ really is the tempo of a minuet, blossoming into
a stately dance (Variation 12), and the scherzando Variation
15 suits Lang Lang down to the ground. But momentum can sag
(Variation 9) and voltage can be low, too (Variation 13). And
the famous Eighteenth? Not the moment of magic it should be
and the orchestra seem slightly recessed here.
Towards the end, the glissando that can be so outrageous
fails to make its effect and as for that end itself ... well,
what is it supposed to be? It can be witty (Ashkenazy, Decca)
or more matter-of-fact, more serious. Here it does not seem
to know what it is, the last note artificially elongated.
I keep on hoping with Lang Lang that his early promise
will be realised. It is a shame that hopes are, once more, dashed.