Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang continues to polarise public and critical opinion but this new recording of the Chopin Concertos, with the suitably stellar support of the Vienna Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, shows the artist in more well-behaved mode. Comparisons with the impeccably behaved recent recording of the same works by compatriot Sa Chen, prove very interesting.
Opting to place the concertos in chronological rather than numerical order, we start with the F minor concerto. This is the first concerto, Lang tells us in the booklet interview, he ever played in public. He goes on to talk in poetic terms about the second movement in particular and it strikes me that his performances of the second and third movements in both concertos are the more successful. He's very much at home in the dreamy cantilena in the two Larghetto movements where the rubato he employs to excessive effect during the first movements has less of a detrimental effect.
The Finales also skip along with real brilliance. He has a spritely way with the opening idea of the F minor's Allegro vivace, for example, that really brings it to life, and he imbues the later mazurka episodes with real humour and a cheeky lilt. There are the same characteristics in the first concerto's Rondo but the tempo fluctuations here are a bit more disturbing, this is especially the case leading in and out of the dance-like where we have the feeling of the performance dozing off and jolting back into motion with a start, although the accompanying figure is spiced up by some lovely surreptitious portamenti from the Vienna strings.
Predictably, Lang excels in the passage work, negotiating it all with impressive, rangy athleticism. However, despite his attempts to underpin it with heavily pointed left-hand stacattos, too much of it sounds a little perfunctory. The skill in these early works where Chopin's writing can sound superficial is to give the listener a sense of its direction and, for me, this is something that Lang, for all the surface brilliance, fails to manage.
This is probably even more of a problem in the ambitious first movements. That of the E minor work, in this performance, lasts exactly twenty minutes and requires a more disciplined structural overview than Lang and Mehta give it. The whole thing, for example, grinds to a halt with Lang's preening first entry, which is slow and undramatic. And although there are times when Lang's reading is extremely attentive to the score, at other times he simply ignores the composer's directions. This, in itself, is less of a problem than the fact that at times, such as at the moments the second subject appears (both first time round and in the recpatulation), he stretches things beyond the limit of what both the listener can be expected to put up with and what the music itself can sustain. The same problem exists, too, with the passage work, which can sound meandering and directionless.
The Vienna Philharmonic, although they inevitably sound a couple of times as though they are on auto-pilot, provide luxurious support, with some lovely solo work from the horn in particular. Mehta is expert, too, in bringing out some dramatic playing from them: they launch into the development section of the E minor's opening movement with real bite, for example. The recordings from the Muiskverein are not ideally clear, though, so this leads to much of the orchestra's fine work not coming across as well as it could.
In a few words from Mehta in the booklet interview, the conductor recounts, seemingly unprompted, how he once watched Lang practising, unnoticed. 'He played exactly the same way as he does in public, with the same movements and gestures. Those things are not for the stage – it's just the way music comes out of him.' It seems people are now out to defend the pianist against charges of show-boating Liberace-style to audiences. This disc will get snapped up eagerly by the fans but it does also show signs of Lang Lang's interpretations coming more into line with his phenomenal technical gifts. When they do, no such defensive language will be necessary.
By Hugo Shirley