Lang Lang and chamber music


              There’s a plant on my shelf that sits in a metal pot and for some reason (sympathetic vibrations) it rattles when certain tones are played loudly on the stereo speakers nearby. I first noticed this while listening to a recording by Lang Lang, the 27-year-old piano phenomenon. In fact, most of Lang Lang’s recordings at some point make this poor plant buzz in its pot. All plants deserve names, so naturally I call this one Lang Lang.

            Poor Lang Lang (the plant) has had quite a work out after an afternoon spent listening to a new Deutsche Grammophon recording of Lang Lang (the pianist) performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor (with cellist Mischa Maisky and violinist Vadim Repin). It’s a big boned piece, almost a piano concerto with chamber accompaniment, and I’m afraid that if there are concerns out there about Lang Lang’s tendency to big-boned and somewhat unrefined playing, this new disk won’t allay them.

            And if there are concerns about the tendency of all-star chamber music ensembles—the kind that come together for a one-off performance or recording—to sound not particularly cohesive, this disk won’t allay them either. The Tchaikovsky trio is a famously over-scaled piece, orchestral in its basic thinking and not well adapted in its gestures and accompaniment figures to the chamber music sensibility. Tchaikovsky can be terribly blunt, and he needs an orchestra to carry the weight of the ideas he explores in this chamber work.

            We have Tchaikovsky’s busy correspondent Madame von Meck to thank, in part, for the score. She spent the summer of 1880 near Florence, and hired a trio of musicians to entertain her. Among them was an 18-year-old pianist she called Bussy, who was none other than Debussy. The French musician’s time there inspired him to compose an early piano trio (long lost, but discovered and returned to the repertoire in the 1980s). And it seems to have inspired Madame von Meck to pressure her epistolary friend to write his own trio, which he did in 1882.

            Even Tchaikovsky recognized that he had merely “arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio, instead of writing directly for my instruments.” But the piece still works, if the players throw themselves into it with emotional abandon and the dramatic sensibility a film by Douglas Sirk. So perhaps this is perfect Lang Lang material.

            Except that one would like to hear him tackle a piece that wasn’t quite so much up his natural allies, especially in his first chamber music recording. “Chamber music is like you’re playing in midfield, passing the ball everywhere,” he told Gramophone magazine a few months ago. “It’s about teamwork.”

            Indeed. But it’s also about scale and balance and textural clarity, and while there are patches throughout the recording that suggest ample teamwork, there are many passages that make one wish Lang Lang had chosen something by Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn. One feels compelled to listen because this is his first chamber music recording, and in the end, you get very little chamber music. And a whole lot of Lang Lang.

            It is possible to pull three famous musicians who don’t work together into the same room and get a respectable, even thrilling performance of the Tchaikovsky trio. I still cherish a silly album memorializing an 85th anniversary concert held at Carnegie Hall in 1976, including a magnificent reading of the trio by Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern and Mstislav Rostropovich. Teamwork is precisely the wrong word for the performance. It’s more like a collective hallucination, which we’re allowed to watch from the outside.

             But Lang Lang and his mates don’t get there. It is strangely fussy, this album, filled with misguided attempts to patch over the all too apparent seams of the music, strange tempo fluctuations, heightened dynamic extremes, and sustained fortissimo playing that loses character and impact. I keep thinking of that word, teamwork, and I wonder if it’s become a pernicious term in the way people think about chamber music, a mindless reflection of the status “teams” have taken on in corporate culture.

            Lang Lang has a very good team here. Maisky is fantastic throughout, and Repin, though he can be coarse, manages to project the violin line with enough force and presence that it isn’t lost in the piano thickets. But I suspect that most people will buy this recording because they’re Lang Lang fans, or interested in his development. And they won’t be surprised to learn that even when taking new steps, Lang Lang hasn’t strayed far from the comfort zone.

            I can’t say that for poor Lang Lang the vine, addled all day, and wishing, I’m sure, for something a little lighter, softer, and more delicate. Perhaps Bussy’s first piano trio will do the trick.

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Filed under Chamber Music, Music

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