Recording of August 2007: Beethoven Piano Concertos 1 & 4

BEETHOVEN Piano Concertos 1 & 4
Lang Lang, piano; Christoph Eschenbach, Orchestre de Paris
Deutsche Grammophon B0008725-02 (CD). 2007. Arend Prohmann, prod.; Jrgen Bulgrin, eng. DDD. TT: 74:30
Performance ****
Sonics ****

The pianist Lang Lang, now 25 years old, spent his fifth through sixteenth years winning competitions and giving remarkable recitals (the complete Chopin Études, for example) in Germany, Japan, and his native China. At 17, he dazzled the classical-music world by substituting at the last minute for Andr Watts at the Ravinia Festival's wildly publicized "Gala of the Century," playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto 1 with the Chicago Symphony. In 2001 he made a spectacular Carnegie Hall debut, and since then has been ubiquitous on the concert stage and in the media—60 Minutes, Jay Leno, CBS's Sunday Morning, Newsnight with Aaron Brown, Time, Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times Magazine, in addition to being the subject of documentaries made in Germany, China, Japan, Korea, Austria, Switzerland, France, and the UK. In short, he's all over the place.

His musical curiosity seems vast—he has made recordings of standard repertoire by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Haydn, Chopin, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff, and his last CD was of music by Chinese composers. He dresses like a clown—see the awful plaid pants and Chinese-flag scarf on the cover of this album. Audiences love him as if he were a panda. He knows how to communicate, and exudes warmth and enthusiasm.

The backlash, if not already here by now, is at least looming. Because Lang Lang is so young and such a great technician, critics have already become impatient with him as an interpreter and downplayed him as a "showman"; one or two have referred to him as "insincere." But, let's face it, had he been a deep thinker—a brooder, even—and been slightly less expert at sheer fingermanship, he probably would have been called "an unfinished artist," one who "needs to perfect his craft" before being taken seriously, "no matter how deep his maturity for his tender age." Sometimes, I think you just can't win.

This new CD is Lang's first recorded brush with Beethoven, and it is a success. I wouldn't want to surrender my recording of Concerto 4 as played by Wilhelm Kempff, but Lang plays it well: The first movement is given plenty of room, with the piano's opening solo handsomely played and a temperate attitude throughout. One admires his skill without his doing anything particularly flashy. The interchange between piano and strings in the middle movement (symbolic of Orpheus taming the Furies, claimed Franz Liszt) is excellent, but it is here that Lang could use a bit more of a meditative approach. The soft bridge to the finale is wonderfully easy on the ear but lacks suspense; the movement itself is spirited, carefree, and invigorating, with runs tossed off as if they were easy. Lang keeps the rhythmic line perfectly, again without showing off. At times in this concerto, he seems to be keeping his grand personality out of the music on purpose to avoid being criticized for the hated "showmanship." I would have liked to hear more of him.

The First Concerto is more aggressively played, in a terrific performance. One of the most exciting things about Lang Lang is that when he plays softly and lyrically, he doesn't sound as if he's holding back; when he opts to stomp and yell, it sounds equally natural. Here he plays with lightness and bounce in the outer movements; the trills in the first movement are absolutely gorgeous, and the finale is filled with energy. The second movement is as tuneful as imaginable, and Lang clearly recognizes Beethoven's debts to Mozart and Haydn.

The recording itself is excellent, with the balance only slightly favoring Lang and utter clarity throughout. Conductor Christoph Eschenbach is a true partner in the proceedings, almost as if he were attempting to make us forget his own mediocre, long-ago recordings of Concerto 1, under both Karajan and Schmidt-Isserstedt. He gets beautiful, flavorful playing from the Orchestre de Paris, and leads them with the same sensitivity to dynamics that Lang brings to the piano part. In short, these are beautifully realized readings by a brilliant young pianist. Fans of Kempff or Murray Perahia will probably stick to their favorites, but only the grumpiest fan or critic could be displeased with what they hear here.—Robert Levine