Lang Lang: New York Rhapsody (CD review)

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue; various other short pieces. Herbie Hancock; John Axelod, London Symphony Orchestra; various accompanists. Sony Classical 88985332922.

Chinese pianist Lang Lang tells us in a booklet note that he wanted to do an album paying homage to New York City because the city "changed the course of music more than any other in the last 100 years...the city which has inspired and enriched me beyond words, which has become my home away from home...the city that turned Classical into this wonderful mess of new sounds and styles, the genius of Gershwin, of Copland, of Bernstein, jazz, Broadway, the arty punk of Lou Reed, hip hop.... In music, nothing was ever the same again. One of the greatest stories in the history of human creativity was written in this city--and I wanted to tell it."

Lang Lang's hyperbole may be a bit over-the-top, but, like his music making, his passion overflows. Whether his album tells the full story of NYC's contributions to the musical world, listeners will have to judge for themselves. Certainly, he attempts on this disc to cover a lot of bases, mainly in Gershwin's signature work and in a number of shorter selections by other composers.

Naturally, the centerpiece of the program is Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (1898-1937). By now, almost every music lover knows it was bandleader Paul Whiteman who persuaded a brash, young Gershwin to write a jazz-inflected showpiece for him and his jazz orchestra. When Gershwin initially declined, saying he didn't know enough about orchestration to do the work justice, Whiteman assured him that he could get Ferde Grofe to arrange it for piano and orchestra. That was 1924, and Gershwin's classical jazz became a new musical phenomenon.

The trouble is, we've got so many recordings of the Gershwin, any new one doesn't have much chance unless it can provide something unique. Depending only upon Lang Lang's legion of fans to buy the disc might not be enough to make a substantial enough profit on the investment of so much time and talent. The "something unique" here is an arrangement for two pianos (Lang Lang and jazz artist Herbie Hancock), accompanied by John Axelrod and the London Symphony. Since the music is a combination of classical and jazz, the two pianists attempt to capture that classical jazz spirit.

Lang Lang
The thing is, Lang Lang is not exactly a jazz artist himself, and I could never always tell exactly which performer was playing which parts. What I do know is that Lang Lang tends to attack the piece at first as though he were playing the Grieg Concerto. It's big and bold, but it doesn't quite capture the essence of Gershwin for me. It reminded me, in fact, of a 1968 recording I reviewed just a few weeks earlier with classical pianist Julius Katchen and Istvan Kertesz conducting the LSO. For me, that older performance was a bit too staid for the fusion of classical music and jazz I've always admired in Gershwin, and so, too, did I find Lang Lang's newer interpretation. Even with the help of Hancock, it comes off a touch too dreamy in some parts and too stiff in others. Happily, though, Gershwin's music is resilient enough to withstand almost any reading, and I'm sure a lot of folks will enjoy this different, more personal approach.

Plus, the reading is long. At over twenty-one minutes the performance lasts a good twenty-five per cent longer than most competing versions I'm aware of. Maybe fans will enjoy the lingering over details, too, but other listeners may simply find some sections slack or lethargic. The interpretation seems to want to romanticize Gershwin's music and only occasionally catches the edgier side of the city that inspired it. Nevertheless, Lang Lang's playing is up to the technical challenges of the work, and he's at his pyrotechnic best here. What's more, the LSO once again prove they can play anything, often at a moment's notice.

Understand, I'm not against newer or different interpretations. In fact, I enjoyed immensely Jeffrey Biegel's trimmed-down performance with Paul Phillips and the Brown University Orchestra on Naxos. And I continue to enjoy Leonard Bernstein's performance on Sony and Andre Previn's on EMI/Warner Classics because both of those performers worked in the popular idioms of jazz, Broadway, and Hollywood as well as classical, and they knew what Gershwin's work needed. Lang Lang's rendering does not convince me that he knows everything about the work, despite the black-and-white cover photo of him in vest and open tie, looking like the stereotypical world-weary Manhattanite.

Anyway, the rest of the program includes other bits and pieces Lang Lang and his producer felt exemplified the New York City experience:

"Story of 'Our Town'" (from "Our Town") with Lang Lang
"New York Morning" with Lang Lang and Jason Isbell
"Empire State of Mind" with Lang Lang and Andra Day
"New York Minute" with Lang Lang and Kandace Springs
"Somewhere" (Dirty Blvd.) with Lang Lang, Lisa Fischer, and Jeffrey Wright
"Main Theme" (from "Spider-Man") with Lang Lang and Lindsey Stirling
"Tonight" (from "West Side Story") with Lang Lang and Sean Jones
"Moon River" (from "Breakfast at Tiffany's") with Lang Lang and Madeleine Peyroux
"In Evening Air" with Lang Lang

These attendant works were more to my liking, although the whole agenda seems too scattered for much extended, concentrated listening. For me, it's more or less background material. Lang's opening piece from Copland's "Our Town" is quiet and sensitive. "New York Morning" is smoothly evocative. "Empire State of Mind" is fairly easy on the ear in a pop-music vein. As is Danny Elfman's "Spider-Man" theme, which tends to dominate the accompanying selections. The performers give Leonard Bernstein's "Tonight" a fairly jazzy treatment, and they do with Henry Mancini's "Moon River" about what they did with the Gershwin, sentimentalizing it too much.

David Lai and Larry Klein produced the Gershwin recording, with Jonathan Allen the engineer, making it at Abbey Road Studio One. Larry Klein and a number of other folks produced and engineered the rest of the selections, recording them in Los Angeles, New York, Manchester, Nashville, and Budapest. Sony Classical released the album in 2016.

The sound is a tad steely in the strings when it's not equally soft elsewhere, but the piano appears quite natural, if a little close-up. The overall impression is a combination, then, of realistic piano sound and somewhat mixed orchestral response. While I didn't find it particularly lifelike, there is certainly nothing to distract the listener from enjoying the music, and the recording's stereo spread and instrumental depth are more than adequate. Of lesser note, there were occasional odd noises I could never account for, noises I heard both on my big living-room speakers while auditioning the album and on my little computer speakers while recording an excerpt for the review.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click on the forward arrow:

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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 more than 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, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa