If, like me, your earliest image of Frédéric Chopin comes from Hollywood’s A Song to Remember; and if the first thing the composer’s name suggests is a handsome young man seated at a grand piano on a series of concert stages growing paler and sicker as he plays, wiping the sweat from his brow, and eventually coughing up that one ominous spot of blood on the piano keys; then the gorgeous music he was playing has likely embedded itself in the depths of your psyche just as it has in mine. Of course Cornel Wilde playing Chopin was not the virtuoso playing the piano. That was Jose Iturbi, certainly one of the most popular of the classical pianists of the period, a man who was to put his recording of Chopin’s “Polonaise in A-Flat” on the charts for a reported four years. And when probably the most popular classical pianist of the current day, Lang Lang, releases his first album devoted entirely to the solo piano works of Chopin, it promises perhaps another classical chart topper.
Lang Lang is nothing if not a charismatic performer, and if there are those who find his playing a bit too flamboyant for their taste, their voices are generally lost in the pianist’s overwhelming success with the public. Audiences love him. Besides, Chopin’s music as much as the music of any of the great composers lends itself to flamboyance, Lang Lang and Chopin would seem a match made in heaven. The Chopin Album is the proof of the pudding.
The album begins with the second set of Chopin’s Études (op. 25), a dozen studies that the pianist suggests not only provide “training for … many elements of technique,” but help “develop how your mind works, and how you control the different layers of your emotional response.” They are not simply finger exercises, exercises in technique; as the liner notes point out, they are musically sophisticated studies sitting at the “center of Chopin’s repertoire.” Lang Lang plays them with patented skill and panache.
The album includes three nocturnes, the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise (op. 22), the famous Grande Valse Brillante in E-Flat Major (op. 18), and one of the best known showpieces in the Chopin canon, the two-minute “Minute Waltz.” The nocturnes demonstrate that the pianist is capable of restraint when he wants it. The waltzes get the more showy treatment. As a bonus, for crossover fans there is an encore of Tristesse in duet with Danish singer/songwriter Oh Land. If one needs something to complain about, perhaps another solo piano piece would have been preferable.
In general, like Lang’s previously released two-disc set Live In Vienna, The Chopin Album is likely to please those of us who were at first naïve enough to believe that it was Cornel Wilde playing that piano and who thrilled to the playing of Jose Iturbi when we knew better, if not always the critics with finer palates.
A note to those of you too young to have been around in 1945 to see Wilde, Merle Oberon and Paul Muni in that faux Chopin biopic A Song to Remember (and indeed for those of you who want to look back on the days of your youth), you can see it complete on YouTube, albeit with Spanish subtitles. It’s worth watching if only for the music.