Charisma, flair, drama, passion—these are the terms most often used to describe 27-year-old Chinese pianist virtuoso, Lang Lang. He has star quality. He steps out on stage and the atmosphere is electric, and besides all that, he can play with the best of them. It is not all that strange then, that at a time when the audience for classical music is aging and seats in concert halls are often going unfilled, a musician like Lang Lang would be touted as the great hope for the future of serious music. It is not all that strange that Sony would sign him to a three million dollar recording contract.
Live in Vienna is the first fruit of that contract. The two-disc CD was recorded during February and March of this year at Vienna’s historic Musikverein, perhaps best known to American audiences for the annual PBS broadcast of the New Year’s concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic. The venue is of interest because Sony is also releasing the recital on DVD and Blu-ray, and the venerable setting is a visual symbol of classical music’s traditions. The Blu-ray will include a 3D video in an attempt to merge tradition with new technologies.
The first disc contains two of Beethoven’s sonatas, the early Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, and the much more well known Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, the “Appasionata.” In the notes to the CD, Lang Lang says that although Sonata No. 3 is an early work, it already shows signs of the composer’s maturity and the strength of his personality. The “Appasionata,” on the other hand, is one of those works central not only to Beethoven, but central to the repertoire. Although some may ask why another recording of such an old chestnut, it is truly a work that has the kind of emotional impact especially suited to the bravura style of the pianist. Lang Lang says: “It’s like an enormous volcano beneath the surface, a dark environment, hidden and needing to be explored.” And explore it he does, both with evocative dynamics and rhythmic nuance.
Disc 2 begins with Isaac Albeniz’s “Iberia, Book I” in three movements. The pianist emphasizes the varied rhythms in the work and notes the folk influences as well as the soft focus coloring of the French Impressionists. This is followed by Sonata No. 7 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83 by Prokofiev, sometimes called the “Stalingrad,” one of the “War Sonatas.” As passionate in a modern idiom as the Beethoven’s are in the Romantic, the piece gives the artist an opportunity to recreate what he calls a “warlike mood.”
Three Chopin encores conclude the recital. There is an etude and a waltz, but the central piece is the Polonaise No. 6 in A-Flat Major, Op. 53, the famous “Heroic” Polonaise. This, of course, is one of the great piano show pieces. Like the “Appasionata,” it offers the pianist an opportunity to showcase his skills in the context of all those virtuosos who have gone before. Lang Lang’s performance has all the drama of the best of them.
Live in Vienna offers a nice variety while focusing on the strengths of the artist. There is a mix of the less familiar and the well known. There is plenty of opportunity for skilled dexterity. There is a range of emotion. Lang Lang knows how to choose his repertoire, and it is all played with a consummate skill and technique. If this CD is any indication, he may indeed be just what is needed to develop a new audience for classical music; he is without doubt just the tonic necessary to reinvigorate the old one. Three million may be just about the right price for such a talent.