Lang Lang (piano), Sr. Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
swore off reviewing recordings by Sr. Simon Rattle a while ago. Every new
release led to the same conclusion: here was the world's most over-praised,
overrated musician. Lang Lang was the featured artist in my very first review
for this journal: a dispiriting account of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto with
Daniel Barenboim presiding. Nothing I've heard since (and I've heard plenty) has
caused me to revise that negative first impression of his pianism. So why even
consider a recording of my two favorite twentieth century concertos that pairs
Sr. Rattle and Lang Lang as soloist and conductor? Curiosity got the better of
me. Or maybe it was the hope that two negatives could equal a positive. But not
in this case. In this case, two negatives equal an ungodly mess.
Which is not entirely the fault of Sr. Rattle. My longstanding complaint about Rattle's conducting is that you can always hear him thinking. He's prone to making interpretive points that never seem to coalesce into a coherent or convincing interpretation. In the Prokofiev, for example, he seems determined to wrench every drop of lyricism out of the slower passages. It's as if he was determined to turn spiky Prokofiev into soft-focus Rachmaninoff. However, that is a minor failing, and on my part, a petty complaint. For the most part, Rattle provides detailed and expressive support and draws ravishing playing out of his Berlin orchestra. He seems well aware of the fact that both concertos show the influence of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and that both were written by composer-pianists to display their own virtuosity. But he also understands how profoundly different these works are. The Prokofiev is a cosmopolitan, deliberately provocative work that suggests the free-spirited Paris of the 1920's. Though it's often dissonant and fierce, Bartok's concerto was actually written with Baroque style in mind, and summons up Bach and Beethoven as influences. There's also a strong sense of mystery and lament in the slow movement, a discomforting mix of playfulness and violence in the finale.
Unfortunately Lang Lang seems aware of none of these things.
Apparently for him these concertos are only vehicles to display his considerable
technical abilities. Predictably he seems most comfortable playing very softly
or very loudly, very slow or very fast. And it's true: this guy can really
tickle those ivories. His accelerando will leave you breathless, and his
fortissimo produce blunt force trauma. And if this were all merely an athletic
competition, no doubt he'd be a gold medal finalist. But when it comes to
actually interpreting the music he's playing, Lang Lang is consistently
literal-minded and humorless. Prokofiev's puckish irony and Bartok's sense of
fantasy elude him completely.
Still, these two concertos have proven indestructible. The one
thing you cannot be in playing them is boring; and whatever other crimes Sr.
Rattle and Lang Lang may be guilty of here, boredom is surely not among them.
In fact I suspect these performances might well have proven enjoyable to a wide
audience, provided a serviceable introduction to these justly popular works. But
there's a single, insurmountable problem I can't quite gloss over, and that's
the engineering. Let me come right out and say it: this is the worst recording I've
heard in years. Remember those sonic monstrosities that London released in their
"Phase Four" series? Well, maybe this recording isn't quite that bad, but it
sure comes close. The basic problem is a completely unnatural balance between
piano and orchestra; the piano is pushed way to the front, the orchestra well to
the rear. The effect is unnerving: the piano right in your face, the orchestra
off in another room. The engineers compound the felony by highlighting; upping
the volume here, lowering it there. So the sound seems to waver in and out of
focus. The top end is thin, shrill, the bottom tubby and blurred. In tutti
passages, the sense of distortion will drive you from the room with your hands
over your ears.
In both concertos, there are better-sounding, better played
alternatives. In fact two fifty year old recordings are much better played and
better sounding: a Prokofiev Third by Byron Janis and Kiril Kondrashin on
Mercury, a Bartok Second by Geza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay on DGG, both available
at budget prices. But even if you admire these artists, I'd highly recommend you
take a pass on this release. It's an embarrassment.