Liszt, My Piano Hero
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Romance “ô pourquoi donc” in E minor, S 169 (1848) [3:05]; “La campanella” in G-sharp minor from Grandes Études de Paganini, S 141/3 (1851) [4:47]; Consolation No. 3 in D-flat major, S 172/3 (1849) [4:19]; Grand Galop chromatique in E-flat major, S 219 (1838) [3:58]; Liebestraum No. 3 in A-flat major, S 541/3 (1850) [4:53]; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D-flat major, S 244/6 (1848) [7:19]; “Un sospiro” in D-flat major from Trois Études de concert, S144/3 (1848) [5:26]; Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15 in A minor “Rákóczy March”, S 244/15 (Horowitz version) (1847) [5:43]; Ave Maria (Schubert), S 558/12 (1837-38) [6:31]; Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, S 124 (1835/1856) (I - Allegro maestoso [5:47]; II - Quasi Adagio – Allegretto vivace – Allegro animato [9:33]; III - Allegro marziale animato [4:09])
Lang Lang (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. 23-28 April 2011, Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany; 4-5 June 2011, Großer Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, Austria (Concerto)
SONY CLASSICAL 88697891412 [73:33]

One modest piece of advice: Don’t read the liner notes. Whether the superstar pianist Lang Lang is explaining that his love of Liszt was sparked by a “Tom and Jerry” TV cartoon, or that Liszt was a rock star just like Elvis Presley, the resulting observations are unlikely to enhance the listener’s appreciation of this recording.

And yes, there is much to appreciate in this collection of solo Liszt pieces, plus the first of the composer’s two piano concertos. Although the classical purist’s lip may curl at the mere mention of Lang Lang, the playing here is admirable not only for its technical prowess - an aspect of performance for which this pianist is already legendary - but also its very considerable delicacy and clarity of line.

Lang Lang’s career has followed the usual three-part media trajectory of the young sensation in our times: (1) shock and awe over the spectacular early virtuosity, (2) subsequent incredible over-hype, and then (3) negative overreaction and prolonged sneering. We are now in Phase 3, but perhaps Phase 4 is on the horizon - a more balanced assessment of both virtues and shortcomings. While this disc is not Lang Lang’s finest hour - or, to be more precise, 73 minutes and 33 seconds - it is never less than respectable and is often astonishingly good … as in his impressive reading of “La Campanella”.

This is a recording for which you will probably need to adjust volume controls constantly. The softer pieces, like the dreamily unfocused Consolation No. 3, are followed with the more glittery, hard-edged selections like the Grand Galop chromatique and the Hungarian Rhapsodies, as the disc alternates slow/soft with fast/loud solo works. The very lively studio recordings of the solo pieces sound almost strident next to the tamped-down ambience of the live Piano Concerto No. 1 recording in the Großer Musikvereinssaal. Valery Gergiev whips the Vienna Philharmonic into a fine frenzy in the concerto. Thankfully the ambient audience noises – and the applause – have been edited out.

Hearing this disc alongside the Liszt of such interpreters as Nelson Freire - still one of this reviewer’s all-time favorites - with his purity of line and his subtle inflections of each phrase, suggests that Lang Lang still lacks some of the interpretive depth that may come with maturity. But those looking for sheer febrile excitement will find it here.

Melinda Bargreen

Sheer febrile excitement.