Hot July nights are obviously seen by Sony and Deutsche Grammophon as piano time. All five of these new releases feature the expressive Romantic instrument. You can sweat to the sweet sadness of Chopin, for instance, in the hands of any of three supremely talented artists. Which is the one to go for? Read on and you will find this reviewer's opinion.
TCHAIKOVSKY/MENDELSSOHN: FIRST PIANO CONCERTOS
Lang Lang, piano: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 474 291-2
A cynic could argue along the following lines. Every now and then the great record companies feel they could use a new classical genius from China. And so, as when a new Dalai Lama is required, a team sets out into the wilderness. They observe the prognostications -- a ripple on a lake here, an abnormality in a aborted calf there -- and eventually come up with their announcement. A new genius -- or Dalai Lama -- has been found!
Of course, it's not really like that. Exceptional children are a phenomenon of nature, in China as anywhere else. They're often, but by no means always, the sons or daughters of already musical families. Their talent is observed early, and they quickly arrive at the local music conservatory. Once there they take the fast track, and the end result is emigration and a celebrity life in Europe or the US. This, at least, has been the case with Lang Lang. Still only 20, and following hard on the heels of Yundi Li, he is already on the top international circuit. His breakthrough came in 1999 when he substituted for an indisposed soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No:1, one of two works featured here on his first recording with Deutsche Grammophon. Now he's set to be the first Chinese pianist ever to play with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and to open their autumn season with Sir Simon Rattle.
These are wonderful performances. Lang Lang has declared it as one of his aims to spread a love of classical music among his generation, and both these concertos, so very different, would be excellent tools in this strategy. The ferocious but melodic Tchaikovsky, with its brass opening stunningly rendered by the Chicago Philharmonic, contrasts well with the joyous yet wistful Mozartean quality of the Mendelssohn. "Some pop music is only famous for one year," declares Lang Lang, "but you can live with this kind of music forever." All success to him, then, in his proselytizing aim.
WLADYSLAW SZPILMAN (1911 to 2000)
The Original Recordings of the Pianist
Sony Classical 509764 2
The title of this CD carries a special meaning because Wladyslaw Szpilman was the original of The Pianist in the recent movie of the same title. His autobiography inspired Roman Polanski to make the film. Here we have recordings of him at different stages of his long career. Being a Pole, Chopin again features strongly, though the perspective is very different from Fou Ts'ong's [see below]. The CD begins and ends with recordings of Szpilman playing the Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor that features so crucially in the film. The first is a high quality one recorded in 1980, the second a scratchy 78 rpm one from 1948. There is also a video track included of Szpilman playing the same work.
THE BEST OF PLETNEV
Mikhail Pletnev, piano