Lang Lang in Paris
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Scherzo no. 1 in B minor Op. 20 [10:56]
Scherzo no. 2 in B flat minor Op. 31 [10:39]
Scherzo no. 3 in C sharp minor Op. 39 [7:17]
Scherzo no. 4 in E major Op. 54 [12:22]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Seasons Op. 37a [45:12]
Bonus DVD (Deluxe edition only)
The Making of “Lang Lang in Paris”
Scherzo no. 3 in C sharp minor Op. 39
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY
From The Seasons Op. 37a: June, July, August
Lang Lang (piano)
rec. 31 May-4 June 2015, Salle Liebermann, Opéra Bastille, Paris; July 2015, live, Versailles Hall of Mirrors (DVD).
DVD: NTSC Stereo, Region free
SONY CLASSICS 88875 117612 [2 CDs: 41:24 + 45:12]
Piano phenomenon Lang Lang and Chopin already have a substantial relationship, and 2012’s The Chopin Album, which can lay claim to being Lang Lang’s most successful album for Sony so far, has been reviewed by Brian Reinhardt. Chopin’s Scherzos are generally considered the high point in this genre, and there is no shortage of virtuoso pianists with recordings of at least one of these works to their name. Having them as a set of four on one CD is always a treat.
If you’ve ever heard Sviatoslav Richter playing the Scherzo No. 1 then you might know a little about what to expect from Lang Lang. Blistering speeds are a feature, but what sticks in the mind with Lang Lang is his remarkable accents. I had to make sure I had the score to hand before being able to make intelligent comments, but the extreme nature of this performance soon began to make its logic known. Without breaking it down to technically, Lang Lang is explosive with the sforzando accents, even where no actual accent is written, and gives more pressure than most to those rising dynamics, resulting in accents at the top of phrases where these too are not marked. In my library score some poor student has written in pencil at bar 44’s ritenuto “Still Scherzo’s tempo”, but Lang Lang changes instantly into a rhapsodic slowness more extreme even than Rubinstein. Expressive rhythmic distortion is all part of how this music is played, and in fact there aren’t that many truly disturbing places – in the end, you either accept the Lang Lang ‘package’ and revel in it, or you don’t.
Scherzo No. 2 is inevitably from the same stable, the kind of mighty and powerful features you would associate more with Mussorgsky contrasting with those melodic lines that sing beautifully, but occasionally blurring the bar-lines in moments of sometimes unexpected ecstasy. The central sostenuto section is relatively restrained, with a nice sense of wit in some of the almost throw-away dance-like sections. Darker dramatic fireworks are the domain of the Scherzo No. 3, the sun lifting with Lang Lang’s lightness of touch in the meno mosso figurations. The sonorities of the piano are played with expertly here, tonal constructions being built and transformed with a conscious feeling of the exactness of weight being delivered to bring the best out of each phrase. The Fourth Scherzo is the lightest in character but still filled with a staggering range of contrasts. Lang Lang skates over the keyboard with consummate skill, but where Arthur Rubinstein manages to smooth over the cracks in this quirky piece there is a sense that Lang Lang is rather enjoying the unease Chopin is creating - not in mannered pauses, but in a more literal reading of the score, using the staccato markings at the end of phrases to punctuate sections more markedly.
These performances all deliver Chopin as a powerful ‘revolutionary’ presence, and are more memorable for their remarkable hothouse virtuosity than for moments of sublime beauty. If ‘Lisztomania’ was a thing today, then it would be this kind of playing that would have the ladies swooning. Lang Lang’s playing is awesome in the true meaning of the word, but only time will tell if these are to become recognised as ‘classic’ recordings.
Tchaikovsky’s cycle The Seasons is by no means unfamiliar on recordings but doesn’t hold the same central position of works such as Chopin’s Scherzos. These are character pieces each describing a month of the year and, though it might seem a little surprising to find Lang Lang focusing on pieces perceived as salon music, there is plenty for both him and us to get our teeth into. Livelier pieces such as February’s Carnaval offer moments of sparkling virtuosity, and the more atmospheric and melodically expressive pieces such as March and June have those extended melodic shapes from which Lang Lang can draw maximum expression. One of my favourite versions of this has long been that of Mikhail Pletnev on Virgin Classics (review), and there remains something a bit special about the Russian character and expressive depth he manages to obtain from this music. This is connected with a more earthy approach to rhythm, where Lang Lang is more inclined to indulge in ruminative meandering. This is by no means unmusical but delivers a softer edge in general – the two versions of April for instance making the one performance virtually unrecognisable from the other.
“The Making of ‘Lang Lang in Paris’” DVD that comes with the limited edition illustrated book version is more ‘Ruminating by Lang Lang in Paris’ and is the same promo film you can find fairly easily online. Lang Lang’s personal responses and insights are always worth hearing, but there’s no meaty behind the scenes stuff with producers moaning about failing equipment or problems with acoustics so a real ‘the making of’ it ain’t. The Scherzo No. 3 is captured nicely in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, the various camera angles and swooping shots from over Lang Lang’s shoulder indicating this is a mixture of takes from his concert and a separate session. They may have been done together with the audience just having to put up with the cameraman, but I doubt it. The selection from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons has the same repertoire of angles, but it’s always good to see the magic fingers in action. This live concert can be had complete on a separate DVD.
Lang Lang fans will find plenty to enjoy here and this is sure to be a popular release. I have to admit to being a Lang Lang newbie, and while I’m not sure I’m a complete convert there is indeed something magnetic about these performances. The jury is still out as to whether the technical wizardry in the Chopin is entirely in the service of the music, but of one thing you can be sure, no cobwebs will be forming around these recordings any time soon.