You'll have to forgive me, but I'm always a little suspicious when I see the name of a record album's lead performer ahead of the composer that he or she is playing. This happens a lot with superstar conductors and soloists, and it happens here as well. Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang gets his name in front of Mozart's. Perhaps this practice satisfies the label's desire to sell albums, a musician's legion of fans, and the star's own ego, but I wonder if in the long run the popularity of the musicians will hold up as well as that of the composers involved. For instance, whose name will people remember a hundred years from now: Lang Lang's or Mozart's?
Anyway, there is no denying Lang Lang is a superstar and that he has a load of talent. He is one of the most-virtuosic pianists of our time. Whether he is yet a great artist may be another question and perhaps one of personal taste.
Whatever the case, on the current two-disc Sony set Lang plays Mozart's Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 24 with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic on disc one and various solo pieces on disc two. All of it is excellent, of course; the question is whether the performances surpass so much of the competition that they qualify as art and that the album justifies its expense, even at the apparently reduced price at which the folks at Sony are offering the two discs.
Harnoncourt may have pared down the mighty Vienna orchestra to Mozartian size, but the ensemble still sounds grand and opulent. Maybe too much so. I have the feeling Maestro Harnoncourt is more at home with a period-instruments group. After all, he has been conducting for something like seven decades, and it's been mostly with historically informed performances. Here, he seems a little out of his depth, with an accompaniment that tends slightly to overpower the scores. The consequence is a pair of performances that appear to these ears slightly too big, too monumental for the music.
No such concerns about the solo playing, though. This is one of the best records I've heard from Lang, perhaps because his style appears more subdued than usual. He grasps the dramatic contrasts in Mozart pretty well, the shifts from the purely operatic to the tender and gentle. All the while he dazzles us with his finger work, so some listeners may feel the combination of Lang, Harnoncourt, and the Vienna players is almost overkill.
Whatever, No. 24 comes off best under Lang and Harnoncourt's approach because it's rather theatrical to begin with. Besides, Lang's handling of the Larghetto is delicious and it alone should recommend the set. I've heard No. 17 sound lighter and breezier than this, but that's no matter.
With the solo numbers on disc two it's another story: I have no reservations except, perhaps, about the live sound in some of them. Lang carries out his part with a consummate ease, a little hurried at times but lending a simple elegance and dignity to each piece. The set ends with an encore of the Rondo Alla Turca, which Lang plays at a breathtaking pace. Although it makes for a whirlwind finish, it seemed a mite like showing off, and I couldn't really enjoy the music taken so fast.
Producer Martin Sauer and engineer Julian Schwenkner recorded the concertos at the Goldener Saal, Musikverein, Vienna in April 2014. Producers Martin Sauer and David Lai and engineers Tony Faulkner and Jean Chatauret recorded the solo pieces at the Royal Albert Hall (live) and the Salle Colonne, Paris in November 2013 and May 2014. The sound field in the concertos places the pianist dead center, with the orchestra spread out around (or, technically, behind) him. The sonic result is a touch close yet reasonably lifelike, a bit soft in the midrange, mildly reverberant, and always rich and luxuriant. I noticed nothing untoward about the sound, no brightness, forwardness, or hardness. Perhaps it could have been a tad more transparent, but that's a relatively minor issue in sound so comfortable and easy to listen to as here. Dynamic range and impact are fine as well, and there's a pleasant bloom on the instruments.
Unfortunately, the sonatas on the second disc do not benefit from the live sound the engineers afford them. While the piano sounds great--clear and resonant--one is always aware of a low background noise throughout the performances and a shifting, coughing, and wheezing from the audience. At the conclusion of the third sonata and again at the end of the program, one hears an eruption of applause. I found it distracting.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: