Lang Lang is one of those rare artists whose name will sell tickets to people who don't normally go to classical concerts.
BARTOK: Piano Concerto No. 2.
PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3. Lang Lang (piano), Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. Sony CD or download. Deluxe Version download includes 11-minute making-of video, but no documentation.
In part, his popularity comes from his flamboyance on the stage. As with Glenn Gould or Leonard Bernstein in his prime, the music he performs takes such possession of him that he "narrates" it as he plays it with a rich repertoire of physical gestures and facial expressions.
This Liberace-like extroversion has won him hordes of admirers who see it as evidence of profound sensitivity to the music, but it has also alienated listeners for whom it is a histrionic distraction that eclipses his remarkable musicianship.
It is true that in Romantic music, especially in performances he gave earlier in his career, he could moon over certain expressive passages in a way that more mature artists would not, but that tendency has receded. Now, with the release of this recording of two of the finest 20th-century piano concertos, few listeners can miss the fact that he is in the front rank of today's pianists.
Speaking of the soloist in a short video that Sony includes with the download of this release, conductor Simon Rattle says: "I don't know when I've ever heard a pianist who was able to be so just sheerly, uncannily accurate in this piece and then still have the technical ability in reserve to make it dance."
A little hyperbole there, perhaps. Pollini, Martha Argerich, Marc-Andre Hamelin and a few others certainly have at least equal gifts. But listening to this new release, it isn't hard to imaging Lang Lang eventually joining that elite group.
He certainly possesses staggering technique. He can probably play anything, but in the opening of the Bartok Second Concerto, after the upward rush on the keyboard and the brass fanfares that launch it, he is comparatively restrained as he introduces the rat-tat-tat main theme, putting his performance more in the tradition of the classic Anda/Fricsay account than the more aggressive interpretations by by teams like Kovacevich/Davis, Andsnes/Boulez, or, especially, Pollini/Abbado.
He plays this passage with a neat staccato attack, phrasing it so that it moves with a dance-like lightness and a timbre quite different from the high-edged, almost metallic sonority that some other pianists bring to it.
Listeners familiar with, say, the Pollini or Andsnes performance may miss some of the ferocity they bring to it, but Lang Lang more fully underlines a lyricism that comes into flower at points later in the movement (at 3:45 in this performance, for example), as well as in the some episodes of the even more violent finale, including its final bars.
Bartok thought of the piano as a percussion instrument, a view that is even more apparent in the brutal First Concerto than in this one. At times when its more percussive voice is obviously required _ in the dialogue between the piano and different percussion instruments that begins in this recording at about 2:20 of the first movement, for example, or the harsh cadenza of the finale _ Lang Lang hardens his tone accordingly.
The central movement of the Second Concerto is one of Bartok's most magical creations. It is in his "night music" manner, with slow, spectral string chords forming a restive background to a desolate and lonely piano part in which a feeling of despair grows until it explodes into a strange, high-speed episode with the piano darting through an environment of brief, flickering wind figures and odd rustlings. Lang Lang's wizardly technique allows him to dispatch the rapid-fire repeated notes and pianissimo tone cluster writing with the greatest expressive fluency. After a trumpet note brings this episode to a halt, the strings return with their nighttime chords, now played tremolo and even more ghostly than in the opening section.
The Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle play this music as if they had composed it _ listen to the clarity and precision of the polyphonic brass fanfares that fill the outer movements, and the eerie strings in the central Adagio, more atmospheric here than in any other performance that I have heard.
Prokofiev's Third Concerto is more popular and less edgy than the Bartok Second. Its mood is completely different, filled with the sardonic wit for which the composer is famous _ a quality few would associate with the Bartok work. Listen to how the song-like opening bars _ a clarinet solo gradually taken up by the orchestra, sudden unleashes rushing strings and mercurial writing for the piano that undergoes constant mood swings from playful and toccata-like to combative to wistful. The heart of the movement is a nostalgic slow central section that works a bit better if kept less openly sentimental than it seems here _ Gary Graffman's performance with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra is closest to ideal.
Prokofiev's theme and variations movements are always fascinating in the way he coaxes the unlikeliest things out of a theme that, on the face of it, doesn't seem to contain them. The greatest example of this technique is the second movement of his Second Symphony, but it is also on full display here. After the theme, a kind of quirky, shy little gavotte is introduced without the piano, it is taken up by the solo piano in the first variation, where Lang Lang gives it a fluid, super-expressive treatment that can be heard as ironic, given the very opposite nature of the theme it transforms. Lang Lang and Rattle bring out the fun and jazzy touches in the rambunctious variations, but some listeners may feel that the movement sags in the slow central variation, where the soloist's heart may be a bit more on his sleeve than Prokofiev intended. No such doubts beset the kaleidoscopic finale, where his virtuosity makes for a thrilling ride.
The recording, too, is in a class of its own among accounts of both concertos. Lang Lang's ability to articulate each note separately in even the fastest passagework is always in sharp focus, but there is plenty of air around the music so that the recording never feels clinical. The piano and orchestra are realistically balanced, too, with the piano not too far forward _ a flaw that took a serious toll on Pollini's recording of the Bartok.
My own desert island choices for these two concertos would be Graffman/Szell for the Prokofiev and Andsnes/Boulez for the Bartok, but these new performances are excellent and Sony gives you both of these masterpieces on a single disc or download. My copy was from iTunes.