The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Pianist Lang Lang’s new “Live in Vienna” CD is surprisingly good and marks a milestone in his career | August 30, 2010

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.

Take the Chopin group, three works surprisingly all in A-flat major.

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.


Posted in Classical music


  1. Actually, this is just more of the boring Bang-Bang. Yes, he can play all he notes fast and slow, loud and soft but 95% of it just doesn’t “sing.” it’s all just so.

    Comment by Vladimr — January 30, 2012 @ 2:05 am

  2. I think your assessment is quite fair, it’s just that the video of his playing (as always) seems so gimmicky. I can’t help but think if he focused on the gestures within his playing (phrasing, voicing and the like), rather than the ‘karate chops’ he makes after certain moments, he’d be better off.

    This is not to say that there aren’t moments of purely enjoyable listening here. I really liked the Albeniz and thought he produced many careful and sensitive moments that were absolutely mature and full of depth. It’s as you said: He is still a young man. While he has a ways to go, it’s not time to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I will look forward to his body of work as he refines his talents in the upcoming decades.

    Comment by Joe — May 12, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

  3. As Alex Ross wrote recently, while reviewing a batch of Chopin bicentennial recordings:

    “Lang Lang, the other big Chinese virtuoso (not Yundi Li), galumphs through the two piano concertos on DG.”

    That’s pretty much the way I experience almost all of Lang Lang’s playing, so “a game-changer”
    (which I haven’t yet heard, but am willing to try) is welcome.

    Meanwhile, one wishes that more of the media attention and spotlight would fall on folks like Jonathan Biss, Simone Dinnerstein and Alon Goldstein.

    Comment by Marius — November 18, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    • Hi Marius,
      I agree with you generally about Lang Lang.
      I am also not a big fan of Simone Dinnerstein, but I love the playing of Jonathan Biss and think he is one of the most talented pianists on the scene today.
      And he is not even 30.
      So far no Chopin, though lots of Beethoven sonatas, Schumann works and Schubert sonatas as well as Mozart concertos from Biss, who told me here when he played with the Madison Symphony Orchestra that he would like to do a recording of Chopin mazurkas.
      Now that would be something to hear.
      Thanks, as always for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 18, 2010 @ 10:03 am

  4. Hi,

    I actually just came back from his recital in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

    Although I was a bit pessimistic at first (there’s nobody who doesn’t know HIS Hungarian Rhapsody), I was really blown away by his performance.

    The subtleness he displays is something I haven’t heard off in a long long while. Also he makes it very clear that he truly controls every note by making rhythmical and musical gestures with his hands/arms. People may think it’s all show but as a pianist I can assure everyone that when able to do that, you are master of the piece.

    But as a reply to your review:
    There’s just one thing I disagree with, although it’s not based on the recording but the live performance.
    As encores he played the etude and waltz which, though not as complete as his main program, he played “as expected’. As expected as in he prepared them well.

    The disagreement lies in the fact that you find the etude slow and belabored and the waltz without the elegance from Rubinstein. During the recital I did not hear any of that — although I didn’t feel any spark either, as you may feel when, for example, Zimmermann plays Chopin.

    So overall: a major improvement and a big achievement, bravo !

    Comment by Henk — November 17, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

    • Hi Henk,
      That you for reading and writing.
      It’s good to hear a positive report about a live concert.
      I allow for the fact that interpretations can change.
      Still, it is too bad that I think the CD is inferior in its Chopin to the live recital you heard.
      Keep us current on more performers and performances, OK?
      Many thanks and happy listening in the future.

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 17, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

  5. I hated his debut CD, the Carnegie Hall release, everything was too slow. But this one, man, I love it!

    Comment by Kevin — September 8, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

    • Hi Kevin,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      I agree overall, though I thought the Schubert and Haydn at Carnegie weren’t awful.
      But the Vienna recital is definitely a big improvement — I completely agree.
      Happy listening.

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 8, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

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