Editor’s Choice, Jan/Feb 2016 – Instrumental

It has been clear for some time that Lang Lang has grown into a sensitive, thoughtful musician. He was always an excellent technician and a marketing department’s dream: reading the blurb accompanying this release you might assume that no pianist ever recorded anything in Paris before. My research suggests otherwise.

With his huge Chinese fan base, Lang Lang is the most well-known classical pianist on earth. Some condemn him for sticking to a narrow Romantic repertoire when he could be commissioning new work or rediscovering forgotten masterpieces. Certainly, while Chopin’s Scherzi are not easy to play, they are nothing compared to the challenges a pianist like Marc-André Hamelin routinely sets for himself. However, in his own way Lang Lang is pushing the envelope. He recently recorded Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto – much less user-friendly than the Third – and here he plays Tchaikovsky’s relatively rare set of 12 pieces, one for each month of the year, misleadingly titled The Seasons

Appropriately, Chopin provides the stylistic model for Tchaikovsky’s piano writing, with its limpid melodies and touch of melancholy. Lang Lang allows his expressive palette full rein, whether it be in the relentless rhythmic patterns of The Hunt (September), the sombre Barcarolle (June), the wistful, nostalgic Song of Autumn (October) or the typically Tchaikovskian waltzes: Snowdrop (April) in the minor key, and Christmas (December) in a relaxed and joyful major. Through clarity and contrast, Lang Lang reveals the quality of this charming cycle as a whole.

Plenty of first-rate recorded competition exists in Chopin’s Four Scherzi: from Rubinstein, Ashkenazy, Pollini, Pogorelic´ and others before and after, but Lang Lang does not suffer from the comparison. In the fast scale-passages, his poise ensures that he neither hammers this music out nor merely sketches it in. In the more inward passages – the chorale of Scherzo No 3 or the sublime central melody of No 1 – he caresses the music without rhythmically distorting it, as Pogorelic´ was inclined to do. An erudite note by James Jolly points out that the volatile Scherzo No 2 was Schumann’s favourite; it is easy to hear why in Lang Lang’s kaleidoscopic pointing of the music’s sudden contrasts.

These are studio recordings, but this set will also be released in a deluxe edition that includes a DVD of the pianist’s live performance of these works, recorded at the Palace of Versailles. Now that may be unique!