Musical Memories from Lang Lang's Youth
He's no longer a prodigy; he's an international pianist with awesome technique and a huge personality. But Chinese-born Lang Lang, now 23, has never lost his childish sense of wonder and excitement. That's what makes him such an entertaining and persuasive performer. So it's appropriate that for his new CD, Lang Lang has chosen works that bring back memories of his own childhood. "Some I learned many years ago, and some I remember hearing for the first time as a child. That's the theme that links them all."
Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 330 especially played a crucial role in the young Lang Lang's decision to be a concert pianist. In fact if it hadn't been for this great work, the nine-year-old might have abandoned his dream, as he explains. "My father and I moved to Beijing for me to study, leaving my mother at home. It was not the happiest of times. Although I worked very hard at the piano, my lessons were going very badly. After six months, just before I was to audition for the Central Conservatory, the top school in China, my teacher kicked me out. She said, 'You cannot play the piano. It's the wrong thing for you.' This was devastating for a nine-year-old. I stopped playing the piano and became deeply depressed.
The class music teacher at my school asked why I wasn't playing the piano for the little kids and conducting the school choir like I used to. I said tearfully, 'Because my piano teacher fired me, and said I had no talent.' So the teacher put Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 330 in front of me, and said, 'Come on, Lang Lang, play the slow movement.' And the whole class begged me to, so I started playing. Suddenly I realized how much I loved playing the piano, and I did feel I had a talent for it. From that point on, this Mozart piece had special significance for me because it brought me hope again."
Lang Lang has happier memories of Schumann's Kinderszenen. "My teacher showed me a video of Horowitz playing it on his return to Moscow, and I thought it was wonderful. But I thought it was a very complex piece and I wanted to prepare for it by playing other pieces first: Brahms, and Schumann's 'Abegg' Variations." Far from being a work for children, it requires maturity and wisdom. "It's like an old man, or a grandmother, thinking about their childhood", says Lang Lang. "An old mind, but a young heart; that should be the feeling when you play this piece."
His enthusiasm for these pieces is infectious and he loves to sing each phrase to demonstrate how Schumann conjures up feelings every child will recognize. His own childhood in China could not have been more different from the composer's. "When I was growing up I didn't have a lot of time for fun. Even at five years old, I used to get up at 5 a.m. to practise and do schoolwork. But I have happy memories of my childhood, and many of them are reflected in Kinderszenen. 'Von fremden Ländern und Menschen' reflects exactly what I felt when I arrived in Germany for the first time to play in a competition, when I was 11. It conjures up the child's sense of curiosity, 'What is this country? What is it all about?' The funny thing is that whereas to me Germany was the foreign country, Schumann was probably imagining China!"
"Haschemann" and "Glückes genug" recall childhood pleasures such as hiding games: "I was the best at hiding - I would squeeze into the tiniest spaces and my friends could never find me", or the excitement of receiving a gift. With the last piece, "Der Dichter spricht", he imagines his mother reading him Chinese poems at bedtime. "The Chinese accent is really musical, and it has a definite beat. The memory of my mother reading helps me to understand this very slow, balanced piece."
Lang Lang regards the Schumann and the Chopin Third Piano Sonata as the biggest challenges on this album. "These two have a very deep meaning for every pianist, and I wanted to wait to record them until it was the right time." Although he has been performing the Chopin since he was 14 or 15, his interpretation today is informed by a much greater understanding of Chopin's use of harmony. "When I was younger, I played very passionately and made a pretty sound, but it wasn't very deep. In general Chopin is a very melodic composer, but this piece is as serious as Beethoven's sonatas. You need to imagine a Romantic style, but the form is Classical. The first movement is like a Beethoven sonata, then there's a scherzo, then a largo, which is like a fantasia, and then a rondo. The four very different movements show the range of his ability on the piano. I'm looking forward to recording this for the first time, and I'm thinking about what kind of sound I'd like to create for each movement. The third movement in particular needs tremendous thought and control. No matter how Romantic and how free the piece is, there must be tension there - not physical tension, but a holding together. And in the fourth movement, you have to make a big sound, but you cannot play Chopin chords like Rachmaninov, for example. It shouldn't be explosive, but it should have an explosive feeling."
After all this deep, controlled playing, the Horowitz arrangement of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody gives Lang Lang an excuse to let his hair down. "We'll have some real fun", he says mischievously. "I dreamed of playing this piece since I saw the amazing Tom and Jerry cartoon. Tom the cat is actually playing like Horowitz, with the flat fingered technique that he's so famous for! When I was 12, I played the original version of the Hungarian Rhapsody, and I was very disappointed. But this one is fantastic. It's as if your fingers were flying. It reminds me of Chinese martial arts, like in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." He's aware of the danger of turning it into a showpiece. "Instead, I want to make a convincing artistic interpretation." The technical challenges hold no fears for him. "You have to sound as if you have three or four hands. You have to figure out how to do it, and then it's not so hard to play. You need to train, like a magician!"
But Lang Lang reserves his highest praise for Mozart, a composer he has come to appreciate more and more as he gets older. "When I was a kid, I didn't really see how great he is. I always thought his music was beautiful, and I enjoyed playing it. But it's as delicate and precious as an Egyptian or a Chinese work of art from 3000 years ago - like a set of dolls which get smaller and smaller and fit one into another. Such delicacy in such a small space. Mozart's music is also precious, and you need to hold it very carefully in your hand."
Lang Lang is always eager to learn, and to go on learning. "Music is like that. The more you get into it, the more you realize how little you know. But working with great musicians like Barenboim, Simon Rattle, Zubin Mehta or Christoph Eschenbach has opened up new worlds for me, new ideas and new ways of seeing and hearing." This CD reflects some of the musical insights Lang Lang has gained on his journey from childhood to maturity.
CD 5: Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 10 in C major, K. 330 / Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 / Schumann: Kinderszenen, Op. 15
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Piano Sonata No.10 in C major, K.330
1. - 1. Allegro moderato - 6:35
2. - 2. Andante cantabile - 7:30
3. - 3. Allegretto - 5:37
Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849)
Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58
4. - 1. Allegro maestoso - 15:10
5. - 2. Scherzo (Molto vivace) - 3:24
6. - 3. Largo - 14:10
7. - 4. Finale (Presto non tanto) - 5:29
Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)
8. - 1. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen - 1:51
9. - 2. Kuriose Geschichte - 1:11
10. - 3. Hasche-Mann - 0:28
11. - 4. Bittendes Kind - 0:52
12. - 5. Glückes genug - 1:25
13. - 6. Wichtige Begebenheit - 1:01
14. - 7. Träumerei - 3:18
15. - 8. Am Kamin - 1:21
16. - 9. Ritter vom Steckenpferd - 0:35
17. - 10. Fast zu ernst - 1:51
18. - 11. Fürchtenmachen - 1:45
19. - 12. Kind im Einschlummern - 2:41
20. - 13. Der Dichter spricht - 3:12