Lang Lang's Chopin Concertos

Review for International Piano

Chopin: The Piano Concertos
Lang Lang
Wiener Philharmoniker, Zubin Mehta
Deutsche Grammophon 477 7449

Chopin: Piano Concertos 1 & 2
Vassily Primakov
Odense Symphony Orchestra, Paul Mann
Bridge 9278

One of the surprising things about the latest Lang Lang disc to emerge from the Deutsche Grammophon stable is that it didn't come earlier. The pianist has been performing both of Chopin's concertos regularly for many years now. Moreover, for many, it is in this kind of repertoire that the Chinese pianist's already legendary but sometimes bizarrely misemployed talents find themselves best expressed.

The only listeners likely to be disappointed by these performances are his critics, among whom I have counted myself. Of Lang-esque idiosyncracies, predictably, there are many. But instead of getting in the way of an otherwise exemplary technique, these expressive indulgences can for once be heard as emanating from imperatives in the music. Thus the middle section of the second concerto's slow movement, where the piano meanders somewhat weightlessly over prolonged string tremolandi, and where critics would be unsurprised to find Lang losing the plot in a bid to play to the gallery, one is confronted by a rendition which lacks neither grace nor poetry. Similarly, when the piano enters in the same concerto's first movement, when the irrepressibly un-symphonic spirit of the work imposes itself on the orchestral parts, as he unhurriedly disentangles Chopin's melodic threads of silk, Lang is all ears, perfectly attuned to the orchestral accompaniment.

Much of this I presume is due to the Vienna Philharmonic, and in particular to Zubin Mehta's careful direction. Alert, lively, in addition to effectively reining in their soloist, they give an airiness to Chopin's somewhat leaden scoring. This is especially noticeable in the first concerto, which follows the second in the disc's running order (and chronologically, of course), where an orchestra really needs chamber-like flexibility and sensitivity to lift the tutti onto the same plain as the solo part. But somehow they manage all this, aided and abetted of course by the crisp but glowing atmosphere provided by DG's engineers.

If the new tradition of Chinese pianism reminds us once again of how well Chopin travels, this was proved in Russia long ago by the likes of Rubinstein and Horrowitz. But neither of these men, nor their successors such as Kissin and Gavrilov, have sought to make the Franco-Polish composer sound like a Russian. Yet this feat has now been accomplished, successfully, by the young, Moscow-born pianist Vassily Primakov. In this disc of the concertos from Bridge, recorded in Denmark last year with the Odense Symphony Orchestra, the familiar delicacies of Chopin's solo writing emerge for all the world as if they had been marked up by Rachmaninoff. All brooding textures, with the middle parts constantly threatening to explode, it is an interpretation which makes up in power and interest what it lacks in authenticity. The second concerto (again leading in the running order) works better than the first, but both have moments of awkwardness combined with touches of real delicacy.

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