Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Lang Lang, piano; Daniel Barenboim, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. DG B0000666-02.

An obvious word of caution: Any musical artist’s interpretation of a work is just that, an interpretation. Likewise, any music critic’s review of a performance is an opinion, a reaction to that interpretation. One cannot say either the artist’s interpretation or the critic’s reaction to it are right or wrong, correct or incorrect, in any absolute sense. One can make the case that there are virtues to every performance and leeway for reaction to every performance. If there were absolute right and wrong performances or reactions to them, we would no longer have interpretations or opinions about them; we would have truths. I mention all this because people sometimes get annoyed when a reviewer doesn’t see a performance the same way they do. And this is especially the case when the performer instills such emotions in listeners as Lang Lang does. His followers cry bloody murder when a critic disparages anything he does; his detractors cry foul when a reviewer says anything nice about him. Understand, it’s in the nature of criticism to have people agree or disagree it. It’s what opinions are all about.

Anyway, the disc under review was Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s debut recording for DG in 2003, and a daunting enterprise it was for a man just twenty-one years old. There is surely no doubting Lang’s technical keyboard expertise, but the results of the performances here are something of a mixed bag, though most of it is good.

The pianist and his accompaniment, Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony, take a bold, fast, sweeping, highly charged view of Romanticism’s most famous concerto. They get Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor off to its usual bang-up start from the opening chords, but then it never seems to let up through the entire first and third movements. Only in the first section of the second movement does Lang show any great degree of subtlety or repose. Otherwise, he appears to know only one speed: to charge full ahead with broad but highly controlled variations of tempo.

Nonetheless, while it’s all rather in high gear, Lang makes it work through the sheer brilliance of his virtuosity, and he gives us an intensely exciting presentation, to be sure. Still, compared to the maturity of some of his rivals--for instance, Cliburn (RCA), Giles (RCA), Argerich (DG or Philips), or Wild (Chesky), to name a few--he seems more than a little youthfully impetuous. Not that that is a bad thing, of course, and there is no question the second movement is hauntingly serene. But considering that Cliburn was about Lang’s age when he made his own famous recording, it cannot be entirely attributable to age alone.

Coupled with the Tchaikovsky is the lesser-known Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto, which I suppose DG intended as a more-relaxed and lightweight contrast to the fiery Tchaikovsky. However, the way Lang handles it, the Mendelssohn piece comes off almost as highly charged as the Russian’s. There is not as much singing rhythm or lyrical grace in the Mendelssohn as I would have liked, although there is much skillful brilliance and whizbang accomplishment.

Just as Lang’s playing will wow the crowds, so will DG’s sound turn some heads. Recorded in Chicago in 2003, it’s big and bold and reasonably clear from the opening bell, just like the performances. Still, like Lang’s interpretations, one notices almost immediately that something is just a little off. The dynamics are strong and impact is powerful, yet the piano overshadows everything else. Indeed, the piano appears to be twenty feet long and ten feet high, bigger than the orchestra behind it, while the orchestra itself produces a sound that seems slightly soft and rounded and a bit congested in the loudest passages. It sort of spoils the effect of Tchaikovsky’s biggest and most-popular melodies by almost drowning them out.

I don’t mean to seem harsh, and given Lang’s extraordinary talents I’m sure he will continue to be a dominant force in the musical world for rest of our lifetimes. However, insofar as the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto goes, the recordings I mentioned earlier seem to me more reasonable first choices, unless you’re a die-hard Lang Lang fan or you simply have deep enough pockets to buy every new and different version of basic repertoire items that come along. Certainly, for a lot of collectors the latter argument is valid, in which case Lang Lang’s view of Tchaikovsky may be of extreme interest. Besides, who knows, you may find it a treasure.

JJP

To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa