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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Études, Op. 25 [32:55]
Nocturne in E flat, Op. 55 No. 2 [6:06]
Nocturne in F, Op. 15 No. 1 [5:24]
Grande valse brillante in E flat, Op. 18 [5:47]
Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22 [15:16]
Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. [4:42]
Waltz in D-flat, Op. 64 No.1 “Minute” [2:10]
Lang Lang (piano)
rec. 7-11 June 2012, Rundfunk-Zentrum, Berlin, Germany
SONY CLASSICAL 88725 449602 [72:20]

This is the first time I’ve ever heard a Lang Lang CD. I must be the last classical music lover on earth to hear Lang Lang play.
I had two preconceived notions of the performer going into this CD, and both were confirmed: that he is technically flashy, and that he is quite idiosyncratic. The decision to showcase the études op. 25 and ‘Minute’ waltz plays to his strength as a high-powered virtuoso, but between those bookends are three nocturnes, a more spacious waltz, and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise. Still, it takes only about fifteen seconds of the very first étude to understand that Lang Lang isn’t going to be playing the way anybody else does.
That can mean good and bad things. That first étude has rubato poured on heavily and frequent dynamic swells and fades, which work mostly, but seem less than totally natural. The ninth, in G flat, is superbly light on its feet. The tenth, in B minor, is a relentless pounding of the keyboard in the A sections, but more nuanced in the central aria. The heroic final étude’s main theme is initially muddied by the clattering activity, but then Lang Lang softens his tone considerably for restatements which are eye-openingly well-voiced. The nocturnes vary from slightly too stiff (C sharp minor, Op. posth.) to an intelligent, vividly phrased delight (F major, Op. 15 No. 1).
Overall, there is more maturity and emotional investment than I expected from the performer. Lang Lang’s rubato speaks of a serious artistic imagination, and it produces very distinctive playing. For many a listener the effect may wear thin after a few listens, but for others this will be intoxicating.
To test reactions to this disc, I created a blind listening game at the Good Music Guide, inviting readers to sample five full versions of the first étude from Op. 25, the “Aeolian Harp.” They did not know that the five pianists were Kemal Gekic, Maurizio Pollini (DG), Ivan Moravec, Garrick Ohlsson, and Lang Lang. After fifteen ballots were cast, the final tally was in that order. For this one étude, Pollini ranked fourth. Lang Lang ranked first.
Why was Lang Lang ahead of the pack? Although some questioned the performance (“lethargic and exaggerated”, “a bit mannered,” “rubato is maybe a bit too much”), the praise for a unique view outweighed that: “very powerful,” “high on pathos,” “ethereal,” “the only [pianist of the five] who uses dynamics so well,” and in the most direct rebuke to Lang Lang’s critical reputation, “emphasis on long line vs. moment-by-moment thrills.”
This was before my fifteen voters knew who they were hearing. I then invited them to guess which of the five was Lang Lang; one got it right but another specifically singled out the real clip as the one least likely to be the Chinese pianist. His reaction to finding out the truth: “The reason I’m not embarrassed about missing Lang Lang was I haven’t listened to him in a long time….Now I’m ready to compare him to Cortot.”
That’s an interesting comparison. Cortot, too, was a maverick performer whose playing can be quite unlike anyone else. Cortot, too, generated intense fans and detractors. Cortot, too, wasn’t afraid to throw in an extra bass chord or two here and there (as one of Lang Lang’s blind listeners pointed out, try track 1, 1:34). And I personally haven’t quite sorted out how I feel about either.
Will Lang Lang’s Chopin retain its lustre? Maybe. One listener in my blind test played through the clips twice and liked “pianist #2” (Lang) considerably less the second time than he had the first. Another wondered if the pianist has been helping himself by avoiding longer, more structurally complex works in which his weaknesses are more apparent. But there are definite signs of maturity into a serious artist who deserves your attention. In the category “Best New Chopin Recital, 2012,” this ranks second only to the stellar Yevgeny Sudbin.
The review copy is a limited deluxe edition. It’s in book form, so you can read two long essays (one on the composer, one on the pianist) and feast your eyes on eight full-color photos of Lang Lang. The one on page 44 is a contender for Unintentionally Humorous Artist Photo of the Year. Plus, there’s a DVD, “My Life with Chopin,” in which Lang Lang explains fairly articulately how his performing style has matured, and how he is more interested in musicianship than mere technical proficiency. There are old videos of his performances from childhood in the 1990s, and a funny moment where the pudgy teenager celebrates a competition victory, while the older pianist looks on and says “I looked like a little bear.”
Brian Reinhart