Landscapes and Love Stories
In conversation with Michael Church, Lang Lang and Zubin Mehta talk about Chopin and the pianist's first album devoted to his music.
MC: What prompted you to make this new recording of the Chopin concertos?
LL: I'm always trying to reach young audiences, and Chopin is the perfect composer for that. His music is so universal that even people who don't usually like classical music like Chopin. What they respond to is his Romantic and noble personality. If you play him too Romantically, the work becomes a pop song - Classicism saves you from that. He represents the perfect balance, as does, in a different way, his idol Mozart. But I find Chopin very difficult to talk about. Chopin is all about feelings, about instinct. And about quick reactions to what has just been expressed musically - you need to think like an improviser.
What was the first Chopin piece you played?
His waltz in D flat major - when I was five. Then I played the "Black Key" Etude at seven, then more waltzes and rondos, and went on to the Ballades, and played all the Etudes when I was 13.
How have you worked on these concertos?
I've lived with them so many years, they are in my fibre. The F minor was the first piano concerto I ever played, when I was 13 and playing with the Moscow Philharmonic in the final of the Tchaikovsky Young Musicians' Competition. I chose it as my competition piece because I loved it so much. It has always meant a lot to me, though at 13 I was too young to understand the pathos of Chopin's love for that girl, which she didn't return. My father told me not to think about the emotional situation, just to think about a beautiful landscape - and about missing my mother! That worked very well: I won the competition.
How do you work on pieces in general?
I always need to find a character - to define its quality and uniqueness. And since the E Minor Concerto is like a love story, I let my imagination go, and think about lovers. Or I feel I am walking with someone in a garden. It all feels very close to nature.
Are there any moments in that concerto you particularly like?
My little solo near the beginning of the second movement. It's as though you are on a boat just pushing off from the shore. And when the orchestra comes in, you see a girl. It's so vivid to me.
I love that obliquely descending pattern, about nine and a half minutes in.
That's as though you have fallen asleep to the sound of bells. Sometimes bells wake you up, but not these - they send you ever deeper into the dream. But in the second movement of the Second Concerto the bells are intended to wake you up.
How do you see the difference between these concertos?
The F minor is like he's longing for someone, he still sounds shy, and the E minor, which feels so much more brilliant, is like he's already found her. And this difference is reflected in the dances that underline the two finales: the mazurka (in the F minor concerto) is graceful, but the krakowiak (in the E minor, which was written later) is open and wild. There is a progression here.
Is any pianist your ideal, in terms of performance?
Artur Rubinstein. Very natural, very passionate, and above all warm. And through Daniel Barenboim, with whom he performed, his wisdom on one particular problem has been passed down to me. The hardest thing with this music is to connect your rubatos to reflect the sonata form, and it's very easy, with frequent rubatos, to play slower and slower. Rubinstein showed Mr. Barenboim that you can make as many rubatos as you want with your right hand, provided your left hand stays regular, to which the rhythm of the right hand must always return. I found that extremely helpful.
What is the relationship between piano and orchestra in these works?
Much more clear-cut than in the Rachmaninov or Prokofiev concertos. Here the piano is the boss, it always leads. But it's in the third movements, it's hard to accompany the piano, to keep the rhythm and lightness, the pulse.
What do you hope you have achieved with these recordings?
We have great recordings already available, like Zimerman's for example, and those of Martha Argerich and Ivo Pogorelich and Murray Perahia. But everybody who records Chopin says they feel close to him, and I do too. These recordings are very personal to me, as other people's are personal to them. I wanted to reflect his warmth and excitement, and above all Chopin's poetry. But I also decided to do these recordings because I wanted to explore the possibilities of the cantabile technique.
Zubin Mehta, tell me about working with Lang Lang.
ZM: I have done so often, and what strikes me is his complete humility towards the work he's performing. He auditioned for me in the late 90s - he was a great friend of my son, who brought him to me when they were both studying in Philadelphia, and Lang Lang played me some Mozart.
Did you feel, as is sometimes said, that this was a quintessentially Chinese player?
Absolutely not, and I wouldn't know what that meant anyway. The first work we performed together was by Tchaikovsky, then we did some Bartók and Brahms, and I realized that he approaches everything in a very studious way - he wants to be correct, and to make the right sound, and sound is, of course, style. And the piano is part of his body. I once heard him practising all by himself in Los Angeles: he didn't know I was watching, but 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's very physical.
CD 8: Chopin: The Piano Concertos
Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849)
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
1. - 1. Maestoso - [14:23]
2. - 2. Larghetto - [9:42]
3. - 3. Allegro vivace - [8:51]
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, Op.11
4. - 1. Allegro maestoso - [20:05]
5. - 2. Romance (Larghetto) - [10:00]
6. - 3. Rondo (Vivace) - [10:07]
Lang Lang, Wiener Philharmoniker, Zubin Mehta