Also, Bartok: Piano Concerto No. 2. Lang Lang, piano; Sir Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic. Sony 88883732252.
Sony’s release of the Prokofiev and Bartok piano concertos is these days kind of a quaint, old-fashioned, and highly welcome throwback. It’s a studio recording featuring a superstar soloist, a superstar conductor, a superstar orchestra, and a pair of superstar composers. It’s the sort of thing the big record companies used to produce almost on a monthly basis but now appear only in a blue moon. Economic conditions being what they are, about the only way to put together a star-studded cast is to record live, something that doesn’t always favor the best-sounding album. Whether the listener actually likes the new Sony disc seems almost beside the point; buyers need to prove to the record companies that there is still a profitable market for such items.
The superstar soloist is the relatively young Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang, possibly the most well-known young pianist on the world stage today. Although Lang Lang has never impressed me as much as he has other people with his up-and-down, sometimes bland, sometimes mannered, sometimes exaggerated readings, there is no question he has the measure of the Prokofiev and Bartok pieces on this disc. The superstar conductor is Sir Simon Rattle, a man whose work seems to me a little less energetic and electric than it once did but whose maturity and close attention to detail still produce music worthy of hearing. The superstar orchestra is the Berlin Philharmonic, an ensemble beyond reproach that continues to dazzle the listener with its rich, lustrous perfection. And the superstar composers are Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and Bela Bartok (1881-1945), two of the most-prominent innovators of the twentieth century.
The Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 comes up first, and the performers do their best job with it. The composer completed it in 1921 from sketches he began in 1913. Of his five completed piano concertos, the Third is among the most lyrical and melodic, doubtless contributing to its popularity. It begins slowly and softly, quickly building up a head of steam with the piano’s entry and becoming ever more rhapsodic and tempestuous through its three movements. If I still prefer Martha Argerich’s performance with Claudio Abbado (DG) and Byron Janis’s with Kiril Kondrashin (Mercury) for their greater involvement and dynamism, Lang Lang’s treatment of the work is, nevertheless, refreshing.
The concerto gets off to an easygoing start but quickly picks up a head of steam, which Lang Lang carries out admirably. While he seems a little more cautious with it than some musicians, it blends nicely with the lyricism that comes after it. Then, too, we can probably thank Maestro Rattle for the careful, meticulously warm yet detailed accompaniment. The Prokofiev Third is, after all, one of those concertos where the orchestra plays almost as big a part as the soloist. I enjoyed Lang Lang's virtuosic skills quite a bit here, even if he doesn't seem as attuned to the work's more playful passages as he could be. Still, the finger work is so dazzling, one can't argue with the results.
The work's second-movement theme and variations sounds particularly pleasing, Lang Lang and Rattle both taking their time to develop the music. It's nicely airy and ethereal in the outer sections and properly rambunctious in the faster segments. Maybe Lang Lang approaches it a bit more Romantically than some other pianists, but it's an effective, seductive Romanticism, punctuated as it ought to be with outbursts of modern dissonance.
In the final Allegro Lang Lang is at his best, playfully dancing along on the keyboard while the Berlin orchestra bounces along in glorious partnership. This is the Prokofiev that always comes to mind when I think about the man's music. It is energetic, exuberant, witty, rhythmic, poetic, rhapsodic, clearly into the twentieth century yet easily accessible. And Lang Lang, Rattle, and the Berliners give us the best of everything.
The second selection on the program is Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which doesn’t come off quite as well as the Prokofiev but is still quite good. In the Bartok, Lang Lang shows off his technical dexterity to even greater fashion than in the Prokofiev, possibly because the work demands it. The pianist's hands are ever on the move; I don't think there's a moment in the opening movement that the soloist is at rest. It's also a little harder to come to grips with Bartok's pulsing rhythms and relentless forward drive than it was with Prokofiev's more-forgiving, more melodic concerto. So if Lang Lang seems a bit more distant to me in the Bartok, it's probably not the pianist's fault so much as it is the composer's.
A brief Presto interrupts the long, slow, sweeping second-movement Adagio before it settles back into its peculiar languor. Its opening passages allow the soloist to rest his fingers for a minute, and then Lang Lang reenters the scene on a quietly poetic note. He is almost eerily plaintive in these parts and most effective.
The concerto's Allegro molto takes it out in a blaze of glory, with first Rattle and his players and then Lang Lang leading the charge. It makes a fitting conclusion for a fiery yet well-tempered program. The album deserves attention.
Producer Christoph Franke and engineer Rene Moller recorded the music in February and April of 2013 at the Philharmonie, Berlin. We hear good depth to the orchestra, a good ambient bloom to the hall, a good breadth to the image, and a good integration of the piano and orchestra. The dynamic range is wide, the bass and treble strong, and the impact more than adequate. However, it's not one of those recordings where the sonics knock you out. It's much more natural than that, especially if you set the playback at an appropriate level for maybe a tenth row center seat. Then, the sound is really quite impressive, the recording one of the best from the Berlin Philharmonic I've ever heard; and it's got a most realistic piano sound, too, not overly close or excessively distant. Although the sound doesn't display the kind of transparency we hear on some audiophile recordings, it's hard to fault Sony's work on any count, it's so lifelike.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: