Lang Lang gives piano firepower

CD REVIEWS

May 09, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Lang Lang

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3. Scriabin: Etudes. Lang Lang, pianist; St. Petersburg Philharmonic; Yuri Temirkanov, conductor. (Telarc SACD-60582) ****

Audiences who have already heard Lang Lang in person know what to expect when this young Chinese pianist gets near a piano - spontaneous (and contagious) combustion. With his technical fireworks, interpretive passion and imagination, and unalloyed enthusiasm for every note, he's one of the most exciting talents to emerge in years. Telarc, which documented the phenomenon last year with a live recording from Tanglewood, has provided a compelling follow-up recorded during a night at the "Proms" concert series in London's Royal Albert Hall last August.

Do we really need another recording of Rachmaninoff's Third? You bet, when the result is this memorable. Lang Lang's performance can stand unapologetically alongside the classic account by Van Cliburn, maybe even the scorching one by Martha Argerich. It packs tremendous energy, but its potency comes as much from lyricism and tonal warmth as dexterity and sheer stamina.

Lang Lang gives the concerto a fresh workout, sheds different light on familiar qualities. And through it all he enjoys a second-nature rapport with Yuri Temirkanov, one of the pianist's earliest boosters; the conducting has the unmistakable stamp of authority and insight. You might notice an iffy trumpet phrase in the first movement, a couple of slight blurs among the horns, but the playing by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic is still superb, with particularly luxuriant contributions from the strings.

The pianist's encore, an arrangement of a charming Chinese folk song, is played in shimmering shades. To fill out the disc, Lang Lang offers a group of Scriabin's Etudes, recorded a few months later in a studio. Again, the pianism is assured, vibrant, consistently engaging.

My sound system is nothing to sneeze at, but is, alas, some years behind the latest techno-wizardry, so I can't report on the full sonic impact of this "Super Audio CD" product. That requires new equipment. But this "hybrid" CD can be played on either a conventional CD player or the new SACD/DSD breed.

Heard on the good old-fashioned kind, the piano sounds vivid and natural, especially in the Scriabin selections. But the Rachmaninoff work sometimes suggests a concerto for piano and occasional orchestra, with the keyboard over-dominating. Never mind. It's still a sensational recording - and a great excuse to upgrade.

Volodos

Schubert: Sonatas in E major, D. 157, and G major, D. 894. Schubert/Liszt: Der Muller und der Bach. Arcadi Volodos, pianist. (Sony Classical SK 89647) ****

The myriad subtleties of Schubert's music are in fine hands here. Arcadi Volodos may be most typically associated with spectacular virtuosity at the keyboard, but that's only part of his talent.

The G major Sonata, D. 894, starts as if in a vague, comforting dream and, bit by bit, comes into clear focus, full of characters and incidents, lightness and shadows. Volodos explores this sound-world with exceptional poetic instincts and, of course, superb technical control. He articulates the first movement in finely judged gradations of dynamics. The tempo is spacious, yet never draggy; phrasing is deeply lyrical, yet never precious. A similar, careful balance of tonal and emotional nuance can be felt in the remaining movements as Volodos navigates Schubert's juxtaposition of dramatic outbursts and poignant introspection.

Things are no less admirable when the pianist turns to the unfinished E major Sonata, D. 157. Volodos reveals the young composer feeling his way in a complex genre, borrowing an effect or two from Beethoven, yet still emerging with his own voice. To cap the recording, there is a sublime account of Liszt's transcription of the haunting Schubert song Der Miller und der Bach.

Anderszewski

Mozart: Piano Concertos No. 21 in C major and No. 24 in C minor. Piotr Anderszewski, pianist and conductor; Sinfonia Varsovia. (Virgin Classics 7243 5 45504) ****

Piotr Anderszewski's unusually refined skills started coming to light about a decade ago. They're going to bring the Polish-Hungarian pianist more attention now that he has just been named the 2002 Gilmore Artist.

That title, which is worth $300,000 in cash and career support, is awarded every four years by the remarkable Gilmore Keyboard Festival in Kalamazoo, Mich. No competition is involved. An advisory panel anonymously evaluates pianists around the world, looking for a musician who, "regardless of age or nationality, possesses broad and profound musicianship and charisma, and who desires and can sustain a career as a major international concert artist." Anderszewski fits the bill to a ti.

This release explains what the big deal is. The pianist is a born Mozart player, with crystalline articulation and exquisite taste. The fire and thunder of the C minor concerto inspires a performance that is suitably bracing, yet no opportunity for sensitivity is overlooked. Anderszewski not only handles the solo spot with aplomb (and even contributes his own attractive cadenza), but also gets a supple, vibrant response from the Sinfonia Varsovia.

In the brighter C major concerto, the situation is no less impressive. The pianist's limpid tone caresses the famous Andante eloquently (though the last measure is a little too matter-of-fact); the outer movements glisten. Again, Anderszewski provides his very imaginative cadenzas, as well as able guidance from the keyboard for the spirited ensemble.

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