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Lang Lang: Memory
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Piano sonata in C, K.330 [19.42]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849) Piano sonata no. 3 in B minor, op.35 [38.03]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Kinderszenen, op.15 (1838) [21.32]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886) (arr. Vladimir HOROWITZ): Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 in C sharp minor [9.05]
Lang Lang (piano)
rec. Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, August 2005. DDD.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5976 [79.51 + 9.05]

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Once you get past the glossy airbrushed photos of the artist and the curious abstract graphics that adorn the liner booklet to read Jed Distler’s mildly informative text, you’ll realise that Lang Lang has some personal things to say about the works he performs here.

He says that the Mozart sonata, K.330 made him realise how much he loved playing the piano and that it always offers him hope. He also points to the challenge of playing in tempo in Mozart. His chosen basic tempo for the first movement, Allegro moderato, is well judged on the whole. Admittedly it gives him the freedom that is required to exploit the lighter side of Mozart’s writing, with precisely articulated trills perhaps hinting at slight frivolity along the way.

Clifford Curzon once remarked that the real test of any pianist’s skill was found in a Mozart slow movement: needing to unify the ideas, maintain some momentum with evenness of tone and all the time explore the expressive depths of the writing. Lang Lang’s account is sober without being dour, as it could easily become, and he does display a care for the scale of his performance. Yes, it’s kept simple to emphasise the internal beauty of the music, and some degree of profundity is captured in his appropriately soft singing tone. It’s only really made more effective though by the contrast that is felt with the closing Allegretto. Again, crispness is all pervasive, but perhaps a bit more humour should be there too. Recorded at fairly close range, the piano sound is rather on the dry side. You don’t get an awful lot of warmth or reverberation coming through either.

Chopin’s third piano sonata presents Lang Lang with a much larger-scale work to come to grips with. Fortunately, now the piano has much more full-toned presence than in the Mozart. His playing of the first movement possesses some ability in capturing the work’s many shifting nuances of light and shade. Around 3’00" in perhaps the fingering is a little indistinct to be ideal, but later on the effectiveness of Lang Lang’s pedalling brings some space for the notes to breathe as they should. The brief Scherzo second movement – Chopin’s showpiece written for Parisian audiences – is despatched with amazing fleetness of the fingers at first before heading into its more contemplative main subject. The grand yet reflective third movement Largo tests Lang Lang’s resources still further. He does take a very broad view of it and in my opinion it’s too broad a view. Whilst it’s nice that sonorities are given time to register, more than once my listening notes questioned the overall direction that the movement was being taken in. There’s no doubt that things progress more naturally in the finale. Lang Lang does rise to the demands of exuberant virtuosity with ease, carried along by Chopin’s irrepressible presto non tanto.

Schumann’s Kinderszenen seems a natural choice for inclusion on a recording built around the artist’s memories of music from childhood. This series of delightful miniatures comes across from Lang Lang with a certain sameness in the tone of his playing. He can make pointed over-emphases of chords or pauses (no.1), not find as much that is curious in no. 2 of the set as others do. He does launch into ‘catch me if you can’ (no.3) with some gusto and you might take his ‘happiness’ (no.5) to be merely ‘contentment’. The ‘important event’ of no.6 is certainly imposing, though taken at a more relaxed tempo than that adopted by pianists such as Clara Haskil. Her sense of dreaming is also more wistful than Lang’s in no.7. He is apt to linger about a bit. His ‘Knight of the hobby-horse’ gallops along with bashful enthusiasm – creating a good foil for the serious mood that follows. The fright he finds in no.11 is all too low key – greater contrast within the writing could have been made. His image painting of a child falling asleep (no.12) is sensitively handled and has poetry about it. As does the last of the set, ‘The poet speaks’, but this is a rather prosaic poet and not one that hails forth in pithy verse.

If was not aware of it before then the presence of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 on the bonus CD brings home the shadow that Vladimir Horowitz’s presence casts over this recital. The Mozart, Chopin and Schumann items were all mainstays of his repertoire, and all recorded for DG too. Horowitz’ Liszt arrangement takes unashamed liberties with the original in terms of emphasis and ornamentation. It calls for virtuosity in its dispatch, which Horowitz undoubtedly brought to it. So too does Lang Lang in no uncertain terms. Just one thing worries me slightly though, the booklet states that Lang Lang "bases his performance upon Horowitz’s Carnegie Hall recital recording from 25 February 1953". Surely, if I wanted Horowitz in 1953 then I’d hunt it down and hear it in preference to a modern emulation of it? This might not worry you so much though as it is so easy to just get absorbed in the fireworks that are on display. A clap-trap, yes, but one that’s intended to be in the best sense of the word.

Lang Lang is a gifted pianist who mixes thoughtful and showy elements in his playing. This recital highlights his growing artistic maturity, even if he does not yet fully meet the challenge posed by other artists.

Evan Dickerson


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