Chinese pianist Lang Lang turned thirty in 2012, the year he made this album. Turning thirty has become something of a rite of passage for most folks, a transition from youth into adulthood. So, might we expect a more-mature Lang Lang in this program of solo Chopin selections the pianist calls The Chopin Album?
Lang Lang has become something of a phenomenon the past few decades, an international superstar beloved of millions of classical and nonclassical fans alike. There is no doubting his technical skill and virtuosity, but his actual musicianship, his artistic sensitivity, has shown its ups and downs. Of the several of his albums I’ve listened to, he has not exactly bowled me over. In his Rachmaninov performances (DG), I thought he was more than a little bland, and while his Liszt album (Sony) seemed more robust, its sound failed to impress me.
In preparation for listening to Lang Lang’s selection of Chopin pieces, I first listened to a few minutes from several old favorite Chopin interpreters: Arthur Rubinstein, Maurizo Pollini, Idil Biret, and Van Cliburn. Now, I understand that some critics refuse to make comparisons and insist upon evaluating all musicians and performances on their own merits rather than upon how they stack up against someone or something else. While I agree in part, I don’t think one can make any critical judgments without comparisons. It is, after, by virtue of comparison that we understand the world around us: We cannot know “big” without knowing “small.” We cannot tell short or tall unless we have an understanding through experience of all sorts of heights. We cannot know if a car handles well or badly unless we have driven any number of cars. I remember back in the Fifties and early Sixties how the little Volkswagen Bug amazed many American drivers with its seemingly fantastic handling because the only cars most Americans had ever driven were big, ungainly Detroit beasts. The first time I drove a rear-engine Bug, it scared the daylights out of me it cornered so poorly because I was driving an MGA roadster in those days. So, yeah, I believe comparisons sometimes help in one’s decision-making.
Lang Lang begins his album with Chopin’s second set of twelve Etudes, Op. 25, which he plays with great enthusiasm, if not always with the kind of insight or feeling I had hoped for and invited the first of several comparisons. Here, I compared Lang Lang’s rendering of the Étude No. 11 in A minor, “Winter Wind,” to that of Van Cliburn, where Cliburn sounds urgent and exciting and Lang Lang more sentimental and extroverted. It was the beginning of various such comparisons that followed a similar pattern.
In the Nocturne in F major, No. 1, Op. 15, Maurizo Pollini is light, graceful, passionate, warm, and personal. Lang Lang appears merely to be generating a series of well-played notes, without much of the personal appeal or soul of Pollini’s interpretation. In the Grand Waltz Brillante in E-flat major, Op. 18, Idil Biret’s reading seems more filled with energy and communication; with Lang Lang we get more pushing and pulling of the music, speeding up and slowing down, with yet not quite the energy of Ms. Biret. Still, Lang Lang plays the piece quite smoothly, almost effortlessly.
In the Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, the famous “Minute Waltz,” Arthur Rubinstein is ultrasophisticated and suave; we experience genuine feeling in the music without the performance ever seeming over-the-top. Lang Lang, on the other hand, is dazzling, as we would expect, but not nearly as intimate. Then, in the Nocturne in E-flat major, No. 2, Op. 55, Pollini is rich and eloquent, whereas Lang Lang doesn’t sound as though he is playing the same piece of music, he takes it so slowly and dreamily.
A booklet note where Lang Lang speaks to Gramophone editor James Jolly tells us that for Lang Lang, “‘I’d no idea there were so many ways of expressing emotions.’ And Chopin, for Lang Lang, is a composer all about emotion.” Certainly, the pianist conveys emotion, probably better in these Chopin pieces than in the previous albums I’ve heard from him. Yet one is also probably better off hearing his interpretations by themselves, without making comparisons to cloud one’s appreciation.
Don’t get me wrong; I think Lang Lang is a very fine pianist, just maybe not a great one yet. For the time being, I’ll stick to my old favorites.
Sony made most of the recording in the Rundfunk-Zentrum, Berlin, in 2012, except the final track, Tristesse, from the movie The Flying Machine, featuring a vocal by the Danish singer-songwriter Oh Land. In the first nineteen tracks, Lang Lang’s piano sounds well judged, clear and focused, with good body and impact. It isn’t quite as resonant as the piano sound in the comparisons I made, but it holds up well enough.