A stone-faced man sits at a piano and solemnly moves his fingers over the keys, while a crowd of similarly leaden, elderly onlookers listens in silence. For many people, this is the mental image that accompanies the mention of a classical piano recital. Even the most ardent fans of the classical repertoire must concede that their cherished music is predominantly high-minded, well-aged and European. Given these stereotypes, the recent success of Lang Lang is all the more astounding. A consummate performer with remarkable dexterity, the young Chinese pianist has already made his mark on some of the greatest masterworks of European concert literature. On his latest record, Dragon Songs, the globetrotting virtuoso returns home and delivers a delightful set of tunes from his native China.
At only 24 years of age, Lang Lang has already set the classical world abuzz with the six albums he released between 2001 and 2006. Perhaps even more remarkably, he has become somewhat of a pop culture icon and made a number of high-profile media appearances, which include a performance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and a feature in Esquire‘s 2005 “Best and Brightest” issue. With Dragon Songs, Lang Lang has attempted to use his celebrity to gain greater exposure for Chinese music. Although the pianist has included several Chinese pieces on his live recordings, his latest disc is the first to feature only music from his homeland.
Dragon Songs opens with “Yellow River Piano Concerto”, a four-movement work based on a choral cantata by Xian Xinghi. The piece is romantic, lavish, and unabashedly melodic. Crotchety listeners might comment that the concerto has more style than substance, and they probably have a point. Lang Lang delivers such an accomplished, heartfelt performance, and the China Philharmonic under Long Yu lends such strong support, however, that most listeners are unlikely to quibble with the composition. The 20 minutes of the concerto are a time to refrain from criticism, and to bask in the orchestral glow of the music. After the concerto, Lang Lang moves on to a series of Chinese folk melody arrangements and shorter pieces. These selections, which range from somber meditations to sprightly dances, showcase a master pianist. Lang Lang’s agility and keyboard-rocking intensity are hallmarks of his style, and they certainly feature prominently on his latest release. Throughout Dragon Songs, Lang Lang also demonstrates his skill at handling more reflective music. In the quietest sections of the album, his sparkling fingerwork is musical crystal, and his tender interpretations are gentle poetry.
Dragon Songs concludes with three duets with piano and traditional Chinese instruments. “Spring Flowers in the Moonlit Night on the River” features Fan Wei on pipa, a sort of Chinese guitar. On “Dance from Quici”, Zhang Jiali plays the guanzi, a double reed instrument that sounds something like a Chinese oboe. And on “At Night on the Lake Beneath the Maple Bridge”, Ji Wei plays the guzheng, which sounds like a dulcimer. These colorful pieces enhance listener’s familiarity with traditional Chinese sounds, and they round out the album nicely.
Included in the single CD-priced package of Dragon Songs, is a DVD that includes a documentary, performance videos, and interviews with Lang Lang. The documentary contains clips from masterclasses and concerts, and it is certainly interesting. However, the best part of the disc is the video footage of the pieces from the main album. Lang Lang is as fun to watch as he is to hear, and listeners will be thrilled and delighted as they observe the pianist steer between delicate keyboard meditations and acrobatic feats of skill. At the end of the DVD, the pianist performs “Yellow River Concerto” with four orchestras and 100 female pianists.
On his first albums, Lang Lang made a name for himself by tackling masterworks from the Western canon. This course of action is hardly surprising, given that budding concert artists must prove themselves in familiar repertoire in order to be accepted by classical audiences. On his latest recording, Lang Lang is not playing to satisfy authority; he is an authority. The pianist’s first recordings took his listeners down fresh paths in familiar musical territory, but Dragon Songs is a map for a new musical world. In the album notes, Lang Lang shies away from the term “musical ambassador”, but that title fits him well. Over the past few years, he has spread Western art throughout China, and he has brought Chinese art to the Western world. No matter what they call him, listeners should be thankful that Lang Lang is a man who is conscientious enough to understand his heritage and capable enough to share that cultural legacy with the world.