Piano Showman Lang Lang in Tune With Franz Liszt

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The spiky-haired Chinese pianist Lang Lang remains controversial among classical purists but among the younger generation of players he's the closest thing going to a rock-like superstar. His flamboyant performing style has earned him frequent comparisons to Franz Liszt, so it's appropriate that he contributes to the composer’s bicentennial with the collection, "Liszt: My Piano Hero."

The album -- Lang’s first full-length studio recording since signing to Sony last year for a reported $3 million -- features Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as well as a series of solo works ranging from the poetic to the knuckle-busting. An accompanying DVD provides a revealing look at the 29-year-old pianist in the recording studio in Berlin. We learn how Steinways from New York and Hamburg were shipped in for the session. We also see Lang videoing himself in a mirror telling us how difficult the music is (“my fingertips are pretty painful,” he says) and the piano technician praising Lang’s artistry (“of course, we put things in motion for Lang Lang that we wouldn’t for others”).

As for the performances themselves, the Concerto No. 1, performed with the Vienna Philharmonic and Valery Gergiev, proves a fruitful showcase for the pianist’s extroverted gifts; he hammers out the opening volley of notes in a clanging blur while engaging in playful jousting with the orchestra in the scherzo. Elsewhere, Lang polishes off the brilliance of La Campanella and the thunderous energy of the Hungarian Rhapsodies. The Grand Galop chromatique offers a rainbow of keyboard colors while softer pieces like the Liebesträume and six Consolations are remarkably restrained.

As for the album’s title: Lang started playing the piano at age three after being inspired by an episode of the television cartoon "Tom and Jerry" in which the cat, Tom, was playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. No doubt Lang Lang himself has done much to inspire a new generation of Chinese children to take up the piano.

Liszt - My Piano Hero
Lang Lang, piano; Vienna Philharmonic; Valery Gergiev, conductor
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Lang Lang plays the Hugarian Rhapsody No. 2:

Vladimir Horowitz plays the same piece:

Which version do you prefer? Leave a comment below.