"Just like fairytales for me"
Renowned throughout the world for his passionately committed performances of Western classical masterpieces, Lang Lang now returns to his Eastern roots with this ground-breaking album of Chinese music recorded in Beijing. Dragon Songs is also the title of a film documenting the pianist's recent tour of China and the recording of this CD.
After firmly establishing himself as a classical soloist, Lang Lang determined to make his rich and colourful Chinese musical heritage more widely known:
"I grew up in a family of musicians - my father is an erhu (two-string violin) player, and my grandfather played the Chinese flute and a Chinese lute called the pipa. Whenever my relatives got together, we would have family concerts, with me at the piano - I tried playing the Chinese violin, but I was hopeless! I did a lot of mixing of traditions when I was a kid, and that's what I've tried to do on this album. I hope it will open a door to Chinese culture and music for my audience. These melodies are heard all over China: I've known them since I was a baby. My mother would sing them, my father would play them. They were like fairytales for me."
Lang Lang performs piano transcriptions of the Chinese songs, joined by traditional instruments including the pipa, the guanzi (double-reed pipe) and the guzheng (zither). "I like using the familiar sound of the piano to introduce these pieces to the world. The sound of Chinese music may be a little hard for some European ears to take in at first, but adding the piano to a pipa or guanzi makes it easier."
Lang Lang has brought together master musicians from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, where he studied for five years from the age of nine. "We recorded some of the music in the auditorium. It made me so nervous because that was where I took all my piano exams. Before we started, I said to myself 'No wrong notes!'" Not only are there no wrong notes, Lang Lang has just been appointed professor at his alma mater. While in Beijing, he also became the first solo pianist to perform in the Great Hall of the People - in the Forbidden City - before an audience of 8000.
The most substantial composition on Dragon Songs is the Yellow River Concerto, based on a stirring choral cantata composed by Xian Xinghai in 1939, during the Japanese occupation. Lang Lang says he never fails to be inspired by this piece:
"China went through a terrible nightmare over the last 150 years. Our creative standing in the world was lost, compared to the past, when China was a powerful country. But this piece helped to bring back our energy and self-confidence. It was like a wake-up call from the nightmare, a reminder that we would do great things again. It has a special meaning for me. I get very emotional when I play it because it's part of my culture, and I am really proud of this heritage."
He describes the work stylistically as being "somewhere between Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninov's Second ... with echoes of Gershwin in the fourth movement!"
Lang Lang has taken to playing traditional Chinese music as encores at his concerts, and the reaction of the audiences all over the world has been overwhelming. "They really love it and feel a connection with it." The titles of these Dragon Songs - Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake, At Night on the Lake Beneath the Maple Bridge - conjure up the world of ancient Chinese art. Lang Lang describes the first piece as having a French quality, but with a Chinese tune. "I picture the most beautiful, romantic lake in China. The music has a glowing harmony that conjures up the image of a leaf gently floating on that lake. The feeling it produces is like meditation, or t'ai chi: emotional, though not direct."
He says the titles help him think about the music. "I don't necessarily follow the story; sometimes I make up my own. Chinese music leaves a lot of space to imagine things for yourself. And it's very flexible - you can use a lot of rubato, with more freedom than in Western music."
Lang Lang has chosen to conclude the album with the most evocative of all these pieces, At Night on the Lake Beneath the Maple Bridge. "This is about a man who spends the night on a boat, drinking and reflecting on his sad life. When you play it, you can feel his loneliness coming through the music. Sometimes my life as a travelling soloist is quite lonely, and I recognize that feeling. If you close your eyes, you can feel the light breeze off the water, the lights of the little boat, the cold, cold night, and the pain in your heart. This is a perfect example of traditional Chinese music. It contains an inner, emotional world, and has a tremendous sense of space and air. It shows just how closely poetry and music are connected."
Lang Lang is already an ambassador for UNICEF, working on behalf of children all over the world. Does he see himself as an ambassador for Chinese music? "I wouldn't presume to call myself that. But being lucky enough to have a good career gives me the opportunity to introduce these works to the world." The cultural exchange works both ways - Lang Lang has introduced many masterpieces from the Western classical tradition to audiences in China. "I love to the idea of making connections between Chinese culture and the rest of the world," he says. "For this recording I've chosen some wonderful examples of Chinese traditional music. There's so much more, of course, but for a first try, this should do!"
CD 6: "The Yellow River" Concert / Solo Works / Chamber Music
Central Philharmonic Society
Concerto for Piano & Orchestra "The Yellow River"
1. - 1. Prelude: The song of the Yellow River Boatmen - [3:30]
2. - 2. Ode to the Yellow River - [3:43]
3. - 3. The Yellow River in wrath - [7:20]
4. - 4. Defend the Yellow River - [6:11]
Lang Lang, China Philharmonic Orchestra, Long Yu, Chen Shasha, Wu Yuxia
Lü Wencheng (1898 - 1981)
5. Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake (pinghu qiuyue) - [4:08]
He Luting (1903 - 1999)
6. The Cowherd's Flute (Mutong duandi) - [2:47]
7. - Dialogue in Song (dui hua) - [2:35]
8. - Dance of Spring (chunwu) - [5:15]
Du Mingxin (1928 - )
Little Mermaid Suite
9. Straw Hat Dance (caomao huawu) (Arranged by Wu Zuqiang) - [2:07]
Deng Yuxian (1906 - 1944)
10. Spring Wind (wang chunfeng) - [2:03]
Zu Jianer (1922 - )
11. - Happy Times (fanshen de rizi) - [1:37]
12. Spring Flowers in the Moonlit Night on the River (chun jiang hua yue ye) - [7:29]
Fan Wei, Lang Lang
Dance from Qiuci (qiuci wu) - [5:14]
Zhang Jiali, Lang Lang
Wang Jianmin (1956 - )
14. A Night on the Lake Beneath the Maple Bridge (fengqiao ye po) - [9:08]
Ji Wei, Lang Lang