Lang Lang: Live in Vienna

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It’s impossible to remain indifferent to the Chinese piano phenom Lang Lang.

To his millions of admirers, he is just what's badly needed to entice a younger generation to an art form with a rapidly aging audience. But talk to a music professor or critic and chances are he or she will knock Lang's knack for showmanship and display at the expense of nuance and depth. Live in Vienna, the subject of this week's Full Rotation, may do little to quell the detractors, but it also shows a performer who takes command of the music and puts his own indelible stamp on it.

The first release in a $3 million recording contract with Sony, in its repertoire, packaging and overall concept, Live in Vienna suggests an attempt to establish his serious bona fides. The CD booklet is chalked full of images of Vienna’s prestigious Musikverinsaal, its gilded architecture set against pictures of Lang mopping his brow with a towel and receiving flowers from adoring fans. Liner notes by Gramophone magazine editor James Jolly explain how the pianist spent weeks honing a program devoted to four diverse composers who played a significant role in the history of the piano repertoire.

Indeed, largely avoided are the flashier barnburners that sometimes figure into Lang’s concert programs in favor of more substantial pieces. The first disc contains two of Beethoven's sonatas, the early Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, and the much more famous Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, the "Appasionata." Still, this isn't a newly sober Lang Lang. He underlines gestures emphatically, and occasionally lets cascades of notes rip with a startling intensity.

The second CD features Albeniz's Iberia, Book I, as well as Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83. The pianist applies a sparkling range of colors to the Albeniz while the Prokofiev sonata, sometimes called the "Stalingrad," is suitably spiky and dark, even as he pushes and pulls at the tempos, allowing the musical line to occasionally dissolve. For encores, Lang turns to a trio of Chopin works that complement his strengths and showcase his undeniable virtuosity.

Whatever one makes of the star-making push behind Lang Lang, his charisma is undeniable, and he's responsible for the millions of young Chinese who are taking up the piano today. He is also just the latest in a long line of bravura pianists known for their flamboyance. Here are four others.

Full Rotation can be heard all this week on WQXR

Live in Vienna
Lang Lang, piano
Sony Classical