Lang Lang – ‘Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor, Op. 30’ An SACD review by Nigel Pond

Lang Lang and Telarc have chosen an ambitious programme for Lang’s first multichannel SACD release. Not only does it feature Rachmaninoff’s mighty Third Piano Concerto, but it was recorded live. Not only that, but live on 22nd August, 2001, at The Royal Albert Hall in London as part of the BBC’s annual “Henry Wood Promenade Concerts” otherwise known as “The Proms”. The audience at the Proms know how to enjoy themselves but they also know their music.

Lang is relatively new to the international stage, shooting to almost overnight fame in 1999 when, aged 17, he stood in for Andrй Watts at the Ravinia Festival. Since then he has played to great critical acclaim with some of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors. The main work on this disc is Rachmaninoff’s towering Third Piano Concerto, written for the composer’s first tour of the USA in 1909. I know all the Rachmaninoff Concerti well – my mother first introduced me to them when one year in my early teens, in an attempt to get me back into piano lessons, she gave me for Christmas a boxed set of cassettes of the Piano Concerti and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini played by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrй Previn (now available on CD: Polygram #444839, ASIN B00000427L). I never did resume lessons but I played the cassettes to death, and bought another Ashkenazy performance of them on CD as soon as they were available, this time with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink (Polygram #421590, ASIN B0000041UM). The point of all this background is that for this reviewer, Lang had a steep hill to climb even before I loaded the disc into my SACD player. I am pleased to say that Lang has made the climb look easy. I wish I had been at The Royal Albert Hall to take in the atmosphere of the live performance!

As well as being a composer, Rachmaninoff was one of the outstanding pianists of his age and ‘Rach 3’ is one of his most demanding works requiring the highest technical skill and great artistic expression. Lang combines them both in a most enjoyable performance. In the first movement, he performs the fast moving sections with panache and, even though the piano has most of the fireworks, he is sensitive to the orchestra on the occasions when the piano is required to take a supporting rфle. He never sounds like he has to try very hard to get his fingers round all those notes. The second movement is somewhat melancholic and begins with the orchestra introducing a fairly simple theme. Temirkanov is to be complimented for not making this sound too syrupy or turgid. When it’s the piano’s turn, Lang’s performance of the variations of the theme is sensitive and exquisite. His touch during the brief scherzo section before the final variation is light and airy. The third movement is huge and exciting – Ashkenazy playing it never fails to send a shiver down my spine and Lang does the same in this performance. It is a tour de force that requires a deft touch by the pianist and by the conductor to carry off the changes in dynamics and to provide the “space” for the massive finale. In my opinion, Lang’s performance here is every bit as good technically as Ashkenazy’s. My one criticism is that Lang does not have quite the emotional intensity of Ashkenazy, but that’s minor.

Liu Yang River, the traditional Chinese folk tune that Lang played as an encore at the Proms concert, is an suitable palate cleanser between the Rachmaninoff and the Scriabin Etudes, recorded at Oberlin College, Ohio, which form the second half of this disc’s programme. Scriabin wrote three sets of Etudes at different stages of his career and there are also individual Etudes among other works in his Opus. Like those of his predecessor, Chopin, whom he greatly admired, each of Scriabin’s three sets of Etudes emphasises a different aspect of technique. None of them seem to be a problem for Lang from the languid melodies of Op2, No. 1 in C-sharp minor (track 5), Op. 8, No. 8 in A-flat major (track8) and Op.8, No 11 in B-flat minor (track 10) to the frenetic rhythm of the opening theme of Op.8, No3 in B-minor (track 7), the rush of Op. 8, No. 10 in D-flat major (track 9) and the “twittering” of Op. 42 No. 3 in F-sharp major (track 13) – Lang takes them all well in his stride.

Like all Telarc’s multichannel SACDs, this is a hybrid disc with the multichannel SACD material on one layer and a standard Red Book CD layer on the other. The CD layer is competent enough, although rather flat sounding in straight two-channel mode. Listening to it in Logic 7 Music mode on my MC-12 processor helped liven it up somewhat. I was, however, surprised by the different experience provided by the multichannel material. One would have thought that it would be difficult to set up properly to record a live performance, particularly one like a Proms concert, where it would be hard to guess how the presence of an audience would affect the acoustics. The “surround” channels are used for ambience only, as you would expect for a live concert, but they really do add something to the experience – and I don’t mean extraneous audience noises – indeed they are remarkably absent in the Rachmaninoff concerto. The multichannel version also has more bass than the two-channel – which is most noticeable in the large orchestral sections of the Rachmaninoff.

The fidelity of this recording is excellent. The Rachmaninoff concerto contains just about every type of orchestral colouration, from very quiet passages to loud booming ones, and instances
where solo instruments (other than the piano) have to play against the rest of the orchestra. On some recordings I find it is hard to pick those out properly, particularly double-reed instruments like the bassoon and oboe, but not here.

Telarc continues to lead the way in multi-channel SACD releases of the highest quality.

Disc Info:
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
Liu Yang River (Trad. Chinese, arr. Wang Jian-Zhong), Lang Lang (Piano) with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, conducted by Yuri Temirkanov

Scriabin: Etudes, Lang Lang (Piano)

MSRP: $19.99