By Jacob Stockinger
Is it him? Or is it or me?
It’s probably some of both.
But whatever it is, I can say this: The young Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s new album “Live in Vienna,” his debut on the Sony label, marks a major breakthrough or milestone in his career. It is, at least to my ears, a game-changer.
With this release, Lang Lang goes from being a flashy and flamboyant celebrity lightweight – whom many critics dismissed and dubbed “Bang Bang” for his lack of musicality – to being a serious musician who deserves thoughtful attention and consideration.
Oh, to be sure he’ll still remain an overhyped phenom who uses the new media and technology masterfully to create a worldwide buzz. And he will still perform pop fluff at Memorial Day concerts on the National Mall.
But no longer can he be easily dismissed.
Take his two Beethoven sonatas that open this unusual recital: Op. 2, No. 3 and the famous ”Appassionata,” Op. 57. For me, they are the highpoints of the recital, his strongest release since his Carnegie Hall recital, which also had a few good surprises.
In the first sonata, Lang Lang is measured. He plays clearly with a fine sense of Beethoven’s early Classical style – good voicing, dynamics and pacing or tempo. His fast movements move, his slow moment sings, his scherzo bounces. In short, he is gutsy, choosing to play Beethoven in Vienna, but he is convincing. I repeatedly found myself surprised and pleased by the subtleties of his playing.
The same goes for the later “Appassionata,” which he treats as much more than a barn-burner or flashy display piece. He brings out a slow poetry and makes the music his own through an expressivity that does not cross over in being mannered. He plays up Beethoven mood shifts and dynamic accents.
True, he may not be about to steal Beethoven away from Artur Schnabel or Alfred Brendel, Richard Goode or Paul Lewis. But he has nothing to be ashamed of and much to be proud of. In the past I have had to turn off the CD player, I found Lang Lang’s playing so frustrating and clumsy. Not this time.
Not that this recital doesn’t have its shortcomings.
I find his Chopin “Harp” Etude, slow and belabored in its attempt to be lyrical. In the other direction, I found his “Heroic” Polonaise a bit rushed or dispatched rather than stately and defiant. And the Waltz in A-flat, Op. 34, No. 1, while good, lacked both the elegant lilt and measured energy of, say, Arthur Rubinstein’s.
But the second half of the recital also has its strong points.
Prokofiev’s epic war-time Sonata No. 7 receives a respectable reading, and the virtuosic toccata finale is blistering enough to bring the staid Viennese audience to its feet.
Perhaps even more surprising is Lang Lang’s inclusion of the first book of Albeniz’ “Iberia,” an unusual, unexpected and daring repertoire choice for him and for Vienna. He shows a finesse in voicing with a strong left hand and the right balance in the composer’s complex mix of line and ornament.
Sony wanted Lang Lang badly and finally got him when last year it offered him a blank check and paid millions to get him to switch from Deutsche Grammophon.
Many critics, including myself, scoffed and thought it was all about publicity and profit. And, business being business, it still is in large part, which explains why there are so many different formats of this release. (Myself, I’d stick to the cheaper 2-CD set and not worry about the DVDs unless you are a Lang Lang fanatic.)
But it is also about serious music-making, captured with great engineering and the wonderful acoustics of the famed Golden Hall where he came, he played and he conquered.
My revised guess now is that Sony and Lang Lang, who is still only in his 20s, are going to have the last laugh. And to think he still has decades left to develop musically even more.
Maybe going wide before going deep or putting marketing before mastery wasn’t such a bad idea for the young pianist after all.
Anyway, whether you are a Lang Lang fan or a Lang Lang detractor, agree with me or disagree, let me know what you think of this new recording.
The Ear wants to hear.