Lang Lang plays Rachmaninov
Lang Lang announced his arrival on the Yellow Label with the thundering chords that open Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, one of the cornerstones of the Romantic piano repertoire, recorded in February 2003, and released on CD that autumn to glowing reviews - Gramophone spoke of the Chinese pianist's "breathtaking virtuosity" and the "purposefulness and conviction of the playing". Now, after the equally successful solo recital "Live at Carnegie Hall", released on CD, SACD and DVD, Lang Lang turns his attention to another of the great Romantic concertos, Rachmaninov's Second, and another arresting opening: those sombre, tolling piano chords that herald the dark lyricism of one of the composer's most tragic melodies, and a swirling sound-world that the pianist himself describes as like "an ocean".
Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto is one of the most popular pieces in the entire repertoire, but it was not the first of the composer's four concertos that Lang Lang chose to learn. He had heard that the Third was the most difficult, and made a point of learning that concerto first, only later moving on to the Second, which he took up at the age of 14. Now he concedes that in artistic terms the Second actually poses greater challenges, precisely because of its popularity. Both now feature in his repertoire. He made his début at the London Proms in 2001 with the Third, and in April 2004 had the opportunity to take the Second back to the city of its birth, Moscow, with an all-Russian line-up: the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg under their conductor Valery Gergiev. The new recording, with the same forces, was made live at a concert in Mikkeli in Finland during the summer of 2004.
Working together with a Russian orchestra and conductor has been a powerful inspiration for the pianist, and he is characteristically enthusiastic both about the relationship he established with Gergiev and about the playing of the orchestra, which he describes as "really Russian: brilliant, powerful and exciting". The Concerto is famous for marking in music the composer's emergence from a long period of depression, and consequently can be read in very personal, intimate terms, what Lang Lang calls "the darkness of his soul". As he says, "there is a constant sense of unease, yet at the same Rachmaninov creates huge, sweeping melodic lines, like the broad Russian landscape. It's a very deep piece of music; you can't play it as you would a light-hearted piece by Mozart. You must incorporate the sadness, the grief."
But the pianist is equally keen to get to the heart of the music's uniquely Russian qualities. During his spring tour of Russia, Lang Lang recorded his impressions of the country in an online diary, and it is clear that he sees a strong connection between the environment - landscape and people - and Rachmaninov's music. Walking around Moscow, almost in the composer's footsteps, Lang Lang found further insights into the concerto: "The first thing I discovered was the wind. This I had noticed in the music - some passages are like the wind. Secondly, everything is very grand and noble, yet intricate, like Tchaikovsky's statue. Bells are certainly one of the most important images in the concerto. As I passed the churches I heard the tremendous sound of the bells, a beautifully harmonic sound. Rachmaninov heard those bells, and their sound led him to his melodies."
Gergiev agrees that it is important to understand Russian culture to connect with the music of Rachmaninov. He calls it being "culturally prepared", a phrase that speaks volumes about the artistic commitment of this conductor, one of the greatest figures of this generation. Of course, there has to be a personal element as well, especially with a piece that is as popular and has been as frequently recorded as this. Quite apart from technical virtuosity, and there are passages in the concerto that are among the most difficult in the entire repertoire, Gergiev finds something special in Lang Lang's approach: "Like any young virtuoso he can play the instrument brilliantly. What is interesting is that he's not in a rush; he knows that the composer wants the artist to take time to enjoy the piece."
But Russia is not so foreign for a Chinese pianist born at the end of the 20th century, and Lang Lang is aware that because of the ties between the two countries, Russian music featured strongly in his own musical education. His teachers also made a point of making him listen to Russian orchestral music, by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. And then, as Lang Lang points out, "since Russia and China have the shared experience of revolution, it is not difficult for Chinese people to identify with the expression of suffering that lies at the heart of Russian Romantic music."
The Second Concerto is coupled with the composer's last piece for piano and orchestra, the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, composed in 1934 in Switzerland, after Rachmaninov, in middle age, had left Russia with his family for life abroad. Based on the well-known theme from the last of Paganini's 24 Caprices for solo violin, it brings the idea of virtuosity full circle - Paganini the demonic violinist of legend linked to Rachmaninov the keyboard wizard. The composer made a recording of the piece weeks after its first performance in November 1934 in Baltimore with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski.
In tackling the piece, Lang Lang is conscious of the example set by the composer's own recordings: "I have listened to them many times, and what is peculiar about them is the fact that Rachmaninov played differently from what he wrote in the scores... He puts great feeling and soul into the music, and through his playing one can hear the traditional Russian school coming through. It's almost as though Rachmaninov is improvising, the playing is so fluent and communicates directly to the listener."
And communication is the goal that unites Gergiev and Lang Lang. For the conductor, there is a clear need today for "artists who go straight to the listener's heart. Every naturally gifted musician will find a way to communicate with the audience, and Lang Lang is one of the few. You cannot imagine the audience being in love with the music... unless the artist himself is in love with it." The live atmosphere preserved on this recording is important too: Gergiev is not hung up on a performance being, as he puts it, "clinically precise", but wants it to be "naturally musical, naturally beautiful".
CD 4: Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18; Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini
Sergey Vasil'yevich Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
1. - 1. Moderato - [11:45]
2. - 2. Adagio sostenuto - [12:27]
3. - 3. Allegro scherzando - [12:12]
Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini, Op.43
4. Introduction - [0:09]
5. Variation 1 - [0:21]
6. Theme - [0:21]
7. Variation 2 - [0:20]
8. Variation 3 - [0:26]
9. Variation 4 - [0:29]
10. Variation 5 - [0:30]
11. Variation 6 - [1:08]
12. Variation 7 - [1:13]
13. Variation 8 - [0:35]
14. Variation 9 - [0:32]
15. Variation 10 - [0:57]
16. Variation 11 - [1:44]
17. Variation 12 - [1:14]
18. Variation 13 - [0:29]
19. Variation 14 - [0:43]
20. Variation 15 - [1:11]
21. Variation 16 - [1:31]
22. Variation 17 - [1:58]
23. Variation 18 - [2:49]
24. Variation 19 - [0:26]
25. Variation 20 - [0:35]
26. Variation 21 - [0:26]
27. Variation 22 - [1:39]
28. Variation 23 - [0:52]
29. Variation 24 - [1:17]
Lang Lang, Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev
Prelude in G minor, Op.23, No.5
30. Alla marcia - [4:31]