Liszt: My Piano Hero (CD review)

Piano Concerto No. 1; various solo pieces. Lang Lang, piano; Valery Gergiev, Vienna Philharmonic. Sony Classical 88697891402 (with bonus DVD).

In the past twenty-odd years Chinese pianist Lang Lang has become something of a phenomenon, an international superstar beloved of millions of classical and nonclassical fans alike. In the booklet note to the 2011 album reviewed here, Liszt: My Piano Hero, he says his greatest inspiration as a pianist was watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon featuring Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Lang goes on to say, "Liszt is my hero! He changed classical music completely. As a performer he revolutionised piano playing, and as a composer he opened the door to modern music. As a teacher he was influential well into the 20th century, because many great artists were pupils of his pupils, or their pupils in a third generation." Fair enough, and Lang proves his admiration for the composer by devoting the album to an almost all-Liszt program of solo and concerto works.

The disc begins with a series of short solo numbers by the subject of the album, Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Lang Lang alternates slow and fast pieces, soft and loud, playing them delicately, brilliantly, or showily as the occasion dictates, with all the passion and feeling we figure on from him, though never overdone. The opening Romance in E minor, for instance, is sweetly evocative. La Campanella in G-sharp minor is sprightly and strong. The Consolation No. 3 in D-flat major is aptly melancholy and moody. Then the Grand Galop chromatique in E-flat major does just that: gallop across the sound stage in high spirits.

And so it goes, with the celebrated Lieberstraum No. 3 in A-flat major as dreamy as ever and Lang adding just the right amount of gravity and weight to it to make it seem more than just light filler. After a couple of rousing Hungarian Rhapsodies for Piano (Nos. 6 and 15), Lang briefly forsakes Liszt for Schubert (Ave Maria) and returns for Liszt's piano transcription of Wagner's Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

The CD ends with the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, which under Lang is every bit as heroic and triumphant as we expect it to be. Here, we find Lang Lang supported by Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world's genuinely great orchestras. The result is taut and romantic, with perfectly judged tempos and emotionally charged phrases. It's a moving, stirring, engaging interpretation, including a wonderfully lyrical and flowing central movement and a chipper finale.

So how does the relatively young (as of this writing, he had not yet turned thirty) Lang Lang stack up against some of his more-illustrious older colleagues: Argerich, Ashkenazy, Brendel, Kovacevich, Pollini, and the like (or even those closer to his age like Kissin, Grimaud, Pletnev, and the rest)? Well, Lang is surely more flamboyant than most, even in so toned down an album as this one of Liszt. It remains for us to see how well Lang's rock-star celebrity status will hold up in the long run, say in another thirty years.

Anyway, in addition to the compact disc, the Digipak set includes a bonus DVD titled A Day with My Piano Hero, about eleven-and-a-half minutes, which follows the pianist as he practices, plays, and fusses about the album he's making. This one is for dedicated Lang Lang fans only.

The sound of the piano solos, recorded in April, 2011, at Teldex Studio, Berlin, Germany, is excellent, the piano appearing firm and glowing yet with good detail, clarity, and impact. It's an exceptionally realistic recording, miked at a moderate distance that doesn't stretch the instrument across one's listening area, while easily filling the room with a pleasantly ambient acoustic. Note, however, that because the music displays a wide dynamic range, you may find yourself having to readjust the volume on occasion. It's a small price to pay for the realism of the presentation.

Sony recorded the Piano Concerto in concert in June, 2011, at the Musikverein, Vienna, Austria, and here things are not quite as good as the studio solos. In order to minimize audience noise, the audio engineers recorded the Concerto rather closely, so the whole thing is kind of in our lap. Still, the miking provides a clean, fairly transparent sound without being hard, bright, or edgy. The sonics do, however, seem somewhat constricted in climaxes, the dynamics not expanding as we might hope. Nor are the frequency extremes, bass and treble, as extended as they might have been. Thankfully, the folks at Sony did not include any distracting audience noise or any final applause.


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