As he turns thirty, Lang Lang continues to create divisive reactions. His worldwide celebrity status makes him critic-proof, a fact that brings out even harsher opinions. contrary to the worst detractors, he isn't a fake; in concert the technique is spectacular, and he has a flair that throws the music over the footlights. The crowds adore him personally and always will, I imagine.
On records the story is different. As this Chopin recital shows, Lang Lang's playing can be blunt and without nuance. compared to the freshness and delicacy that was evident when he first appeared, the pianist has followed Kissin in becoming somewhat hardened and impersonal in his interpretations. the opening work is the second set of Etudes Op. 25, and where I admired the flash and dazzle of Lang Lang's recent Liszt album, his focus on extrovert display in Chopin plays to the gallery, reaching for big effects without delicacy or much personal feeling. Tender, reflective Etudes like the C-sharp Minor (no. 7) afford a lovely respite. Lang Lang has a poetic side, which I find is most convincing attribute as an interpreter. The famous, spectacular "Winter Winds" Etude (no. 11) begins with finesse before it virtually explodes and the roof caves in. It's a crude reading, even though one admires the ease with which the right and left hand parts are voiced without fudging the difficulties.
The two Nocturnes that come next appeal to the pianist's lyrical side, but in Op. 55 no. 2 the phrasing is impersonal and a tad proficient. Lang Lang has such a precise touch that he can create air in between very fast passing notes, which is a marvel when Liszt write up a firestorm. The same quality gives a nice open clarity in Chopin, but legato passages sometimes feel disjointed - I'm not naming a serious flaw, only noting that the singing line isn't always brought out enough. The second Nocturne here (Op. 15 no. 1) is the most successful item so far; it's quietly reflective and touching, with restrained passion in the contrasting middle section.
Lang Lang mentions that the popular Grande Valse Brillante (Op. 18 no. 1) was among the earliest Chopin that he learned. He splits the difference between the elegance of Lipatti and the boisterous exuberance of Kissin. the result is perhaps too much of a hybrid to sound distinctive on its own, but the reading holds it own, certainly. You feel that a musical imagination is expressing itself, if somewhat cautiously. The Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, which is so rhapsodic that it can fall apart, wasn't a work that I expected Lang Lang to excel at, but it turns out to be very impressive. His touch and phrasing are lovely, and real personality comes through.
Just as engaging are the two numbers that end the recital, the Nocturne Op. Post. in C-shapr Minor and the "Minute Waltz" (not played for speed - Lang Lang takes 2 min.) If only the rest of the recital had risen to this level, revealing what he is capable of. Like his other albums, this one won't earn unreserved praise, but the best parts won me over. The recorded sound and the piano itself are fine.
(There's a bonus pop crossover song that I will leave as a surprise, as well as a 14 min. DVD about Lang Lang's love of Chopin, which wasn't part of my download.)
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