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Lang Lang & Gergiev in Rachmaninov

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S. Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 2, Lang Lang, Valery Gergiev, Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater
Lang Lang's new disc, soon to be issued by Deutsche Gramophon, features their poster-boy pianist superstar in Rachmaninov's second piano concerto and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Lang Lang, the cornerstone of DG's attempt to conquer the Asian market has technical faculties that are second to none, at least among his peers. The repertoire is well chosen in its continuation of Romantic piano concertos, just like the preceding Rachmaninov 3rd (Teldec, awful) and Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky piano concertos (with Barenboim on DG, so-so). The gloriously, unabashedly Romantic work that the second of Rachmaninov's piano concertos is, it hardly ever sounds bad, and it does not sound bad with Lang Lang pushing the keys and Valery Gergiev waving the baton before the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater (formerly known as the Kirov Orchestra).

But there has been much said on that concerto by other pianists, and Lang Lang does not add anything new to it that I am aware of. His playing—so much of the stereotype he's acquired already stays true on this disc—is gratuitously show-offish with little emphasis on the musicality and subtly of expression. He struts his stuff and flashes it like a São Paolo harbor whore. Now there is something to be said about São Paolo's harbor whores: they, like Lang Lang, make good business, after all. But seeing everything at once becomes tiresome, and I should think that the style does not attract much repeat business in either case.

Compared to the recent Hyperion release of Steven Hough playing all of Rachmaninov's piano concerti (with Litton and the Dallas SO) is a dramatic contrast. Hough breezes through the music without 60-some years of superimposed Romantic glitter and glamour, returning to (or perhaps rather: approximating) the way Rachmaninov himself played the works (available on Naxos and RCA). The opening chords are portamento in Hough's case, and he seems to have a goal in mind. Lang Lang's opening is separated, thumping, and the chords exist for their own sake. The second movement is a procession of perfectly correct notes with Lang Lang (the recording is "live," though the disc does not tell the date/s of the performance/s from which it was taken), and a shimmering, brook-like bubbling narrative in Hough's recording. Hough's recording is also "live," though the extensive editing all but makes that unnoticeable. Also more impressive - in a different way - is Krystan Zimerman's recent recording (coupled with what is probably the finest Piano Concerto No. 1 on record), which makes a more natural comparison to Lang Lang than the interesting, evasively sublime Hough disc. (Which was, incidentally, hailed to the skies in English-speaking countries' literature, derided or perceived with indifference in France and Germany.)

Less self-conscious and with more depth than Lang Lang, Zimerman wins the comparison hands down. (As does, for that matter, the Ashkenazy/Previn recording available for a pittance.) The fact that the two quotes of praise on the back of the CD come from the artists themselves seems odd, too. And even then, all that Gergiev can say is that "Lang Lang can play … brilliantly. He can be fast, precise, and well accomplished. … His approach is very thorough. He’s not in a rush." Quite frankly, that almost sounds like damning with faint praise.

Since, despite all that, it is enjoyable enough a recording, Lang Lang's disc may well be worth acquiring for the more hardened followers of Lang Lang. If nothing else, nine (9!) pretty pictures of the pianist (on the beach, at the piano, in the steppes, with spiky hair, with tame hair, just his hands…) might delight. On the notable side: three pages of information about the concerto, only two about the performer.

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Ashkenazy/Previn, Piano Concertos 1 and 3
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Hough/Litton, Piano Concertos 1-4
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Rachmaninov plays Rachmaninov

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