Do you know that feeling that you get when a choir starts to sing the “Hallelujah” chorus too loud? Or when a budding thespian starts to ramble through their Shakespearean soliloquy too quickly? Misplaced aesthetics, be they well-intentioned or not, can give you a most uneasy twitch. As classical music is handed down from one generation to the next, these particular knacks sometimes get handed down with them. They are stoppable though. For example, music scholars were already aware that Frédéric Chopin’s “Waltz op. 64, No. 1 in D-flat Major”, nicknamed the “Minute Waltz”, was not supposed to be sixty seconds long—“minute” meant “miniature” in this case. Not every pianist knew this, but the trend was halted before it got out of hand (Victor Borge jokingly described the waltz as a handy egg timer). If Lang Lang’s The Chopin Album is of any indication, the tendencies to bulldoze one’s misguided aesthetics through the fine-toothed phrases and meticulous chord-borrowing of romantic era solo piano will probably die off a little harder than we want it to.
Frédéric Chopin has been one of the guiding compositional stars for Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s career ever since he burst onto the classical music competitive scene in his teens. This makes some of the slapdash nature of The Chopin Album all the more surprising. On the one hand, a pianist of Lang Lang’s stature is in touch with the gratitude he feels for composers such as Chopin for providing him with such an embarrassment of riches. On the other hand, the competition days are over and it’s time to give the music some breathing room. Lang Lang still plows through Chopin as if a headmaster were standing behind him, glaring over the pianist’s shoulder with a pocketwatch in one hand and a licking stick in the other.
When it comes to music as ornate and emotive as Chopin, the hurried habits poke through the mix more and more. Too often, Lang Lang runs his fingers over a rapidly ascending right hand figures for a less than refined effect. The dynamic range gets reckless and his use of the piano’s sustain pedal just further smears the already exaggerated accelerandos and fortes. He picks many noteworthy numbers to record like “Grande Valse Brillante op. 18, No. 1 in E-flat Major” (I confess a fondness for Vladimir Ashkenazy’s rendition), the “Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise op. 22”, and twelve Études. But as one pushes through the album, the acumen that Lang Lang has for Chopin feels, if not lost, then hastily glossed over. Pushing 75 minutes, The Chopin Album‘s warts add up, and the final “Tristesse”, a duet with Danish singer Oh Land, becomes a definition of an afterthought.
In the overall scope of things, Lang Lang is still shaking off the pressures of the competition circuit. Call it a hunch, but this could account for the lack of finesse here. If there was one valuable lesson I took from Rudolph Buchbinder’s liner notes for his Beethoven piano sonata box set, it’s that adeptness can only come from letting go of the music. Rather than let the music guide him, it sounds like Lang Lang is trying to do it the other way around. But give him time. And if you don’t feel like giving him the benefit of the doubt, then there’s oodles of Chopin recordings already out there.
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