Lang Lang, one of the hottest young stars of the classical world, has incredible facility with the piano. He does everything from playing at a White House Gala to opening the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea with Psy (yes, of Gangnam Style fame) and being the UN Messenger of Peace. He’s a busy guy. It is startling to see the ease with which he extemporaneously plays starkly different pieces, as he does in this video on how he checks out a new piano (care of The Daily Telegraph). Not many can chat and play Schumann or Bach at the same time. So it’s exciting to see him turn his attention to some of Mozart‘s Piano Concertos and Sonatas. Normally when you think of composers for the piano, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Rachmaninov come to mind. These folks had access to modern pianos. Mozart composed for the fortepiano which, unlike the harpsichord, could make notes louder or softer based on pressure. They, however, didn’t have the range of modern pianos nor their tone. They also required much more finesse to play well. So the musical and expressive nature of music played on the fortepiano was limited. Fortunately Mozart was a genius and was able to produce some amazingly beautiful music on the fortepiano.
So here we have two brilliant young musicians (Lang Lang is 27 and Mozart composed nothing later than 35, his age at death). Mr. Lang turns his focus on two Concertos for Piano and Orchestras, 17 & 24, as well as a number of Sonatas and other solo pieces. He plays them textbook perfect. If this is your first foray into Mozart’s piano music, it’s hard to imagine a better starting point. Mr. Lang’s pacing is spot on, his phrasing is elegant and expression matches the piece. Joined by Mozart expert Nikolaus Harnoncort and the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic), beautiful music is produced. It’s also, to my taste, just a little bit bland, taken as a hole.
To see what I mean, let’s focus on 24’s third movement and compare Mr. Lang’s performance with some other well known pianists, namely Daniel Barenboim, Glenn Gould, and Mitsuko Uchida. Now clearly the conductor and orchestra combine with the soloist for the overall performance and will influence even well-established soloists like those listed. Mr. Gould is paired with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) Symphony conducted by Walter Susskind. The CBC is now defunct, but this was back in the day when each major broadcasting company had first class orchestras and conductors. The CBC is more than competent. Mr. Barenboim plays with the Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin Philharmonic) conducted by Sir George Solti and Ms. Uchida played with the Cleveland Orchestra; she also conducted. All of whom are world class.
One benefit of the third movement of 24 is that it’s almost a whole minute before the piano joins in the music so you have a real sense of the pacing and expression of the orchestra and its influence on the soloist. With one exception (Mr. Gould), their playing is very much in the same line as the soloist. Let’s take Mr. Barenboim first; his playing is closest to Mr. Langs. The pacing is on the quicker side with clear expression that is faithful to the piece without taking a lot of risks. His phrasing is a touch more definitive than Mr. Lang’s. Mr. Lang’s facility at some of the quicker pieces such as the “Rondo Alla Turca” is a bit stronger. All in all, they are both faithful, strong, and quite comparable with one another. Mr. Gould is a different story; his recording of Mozart raised more than a few eyebrows. It was controversial enough that some claimed he wasn’t even playing Mozart. Mr. Gould takes artistic license with the pieces and add flourishes, emphases and pacing that are not, quite frankly, on the music sheet. He interprets Mozart as if Mozart were a Twentieth Century contemporary who composed for a modern piano with all of its expressiveness and range. You either love it or hate it. While I lean quite heavily towards fidelity than personal interpretation, I quite like Mr. Gould’s interpretation. It’s a little like the Cumberbatch/Freeman modern take on Sherlock; it’s faithful to the spirit whilst making it contemporary. Mr. Gould’s rendition is fresh, alive and uses the full range of a contemporary piano at his disposal. Finally, we come to Ms. Uchida. She stays within the original musical intent while being much more expressive than either Mr. Lang or Mr. Barenboim. Ms. Uchida musical interpretation comes in rounding the sound, tone and emphasis. It’s a bit like being a relatively gentle roller-coaster of sound. Faithful, expressive and lovely tone rolling over you from Mozart! It’s an amazing feat.
Perhaps that gives you a sense of Mr. Lang’s playing on this album – accurate, emotive and confident music that portrays Mozart well but ultimately falls shy of inspirational. I do recommend listening to both of the concertos as well as the Rondo known as “The Turkish March“; here’s a trailer for this top 10 Billboard Classical album for a little further glimpse into it.