October 10, 2014
This 2-CD set gathers a mix of studio and live recordings of Mozart piano works performed by Lang Lang, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic joining in for the two concerti, No. 24 in c (K. 491) and No. 17 in G (K. 453). Per the liner notes by Lindsay Kemp, these recordings of K. 491 and K. 453 are evidently Lang Lang's first commercial recordings of any Mozart piano concerti.
The concerto recordings are studio recordings made in April 2014 at the Musikverein in Vienna. At first glance, it seems like the oddest of odd couples to pair Lang Lang with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, given their wildly disparate backgrounds and reputations. Yet they have collaborated together previously, at Carnegie Hall, for example, and it evidently worked well enough that they've teamed back up for this recording project. The liner notes take pains to quote their mutual respect for each other.
Harnoncourt brings aspects of his advocacy of historically informed performance practice (HIPP) to the orchestral sound from the Vienna Philharmonic, as evidenced principally by the minimal presence of vibrato from the strings. Yet seemingly counter to the apparent stereotype of HIPP, the orchestral sound has a quite weighty feel of a seemingly large ensemble, not at all lightweight or evident of reduced orchestral forces. Likewise, Lang Lang treats his parts with great respect and care, and generally avoids any pyrotechnics that is the comparable stereotype of Lang Lang's own image. In fact, Lang Lang occasionally feels a bit studious, perhaps slightly too careful, in these concerto recordings, particularly in the slow movements. It's almost as if he wants to avoid being seen as "flashy", although one could also interpret this feature this as a mark of his respect for Harnoncourt. In turn, Harnoncourt has a reputation for occasionally brusque punchiness in his recordings of the classical era repertoire, as if trying to counter the "Dresden china" image of past Mozart performances. Yet that aspect of his reputation does not figure in these recordings, as there's nothing 'harsh' about the VPO's sound, even with reduced vibrato. Maybe a way of interpreting this collaboration in these recordings is that these two artists have tamped down their own perceived idiosyncracies, and met somewhere in the middle. The Vienna Philharmonic provide strong support, no surprise there, where in what is perhaps a bit of a surprise, they have willingly have adopted Harnoncourt's requests on timbre that seems to go so against old-school Vienna Philharmonic tradition of much of the previous century. (For those concerned about a particular long-running VPO issue, no women are visible among the orchestra musicians, but the photos are so tightly framed as to put Lang Lang and Harnoncourt center stage, so that you only see the front desk players of the orchestra anyway in the photos.)
Lang Lang is on his own, of course, in the second CD of solo piano works. The recordings of the three sonatas here, No. 5 in G (K. 283), No. 4 in Eb (K. 282), and No. 8 in a (K. 310), came from a November 2013 live recital at the Royal Albert Hall, London. Interestingly, these solo sonata performances seem cut from the same characteristic cloth as the concerti, in that Lang Lang avoids obvious "showing-off" in these renditions. The slow movements also have a respectful feel about them, again to the point of carefulness. The three shorter works after the Sonata No. 8, the March in C (K. 408/1), the Piano Piece in F (K. 33b), and the Allegro in F (K. 1c), are studio recordings made in Paris in May 2014 (at least I gather that they are studio recordings), given clean and straightforward renderings. It is only in the "Encore" track on the album, the 'Rondo alla Turca' from the Sonata No. 11 (from the same Royal Albert Hall performance), that Lang Lang cuts loose and does what you might expect him to do, where he goes from the starting gate at a pretty brisk clip, faster than what seems to be the norm on most recordings. Of course, the audience at the end loved it, as witnessed by the recorded applause.
That leads to one quirk of the presentation on the 2nd CD, namely the omission of applause after the first two sonatas of this set. Immediately after Sonata No. 5, thats not such an issue, as there is enough quiet time before the next sonata starts. However, between Sonatas No. 4 and No. 8, No. 8 starts almost immediately after the end of No. 4, with no time to "come up for air", so to speak. An audible intake of breath, presumably from Lang Lang himself, is evidently just before No. 8 starts. Its not clear if Lang Lang meant to play those two sonatas continuously, with no break, or if there was applause and the recording producers wanted to omit it at that point for commercial release. IMHO, it would have been better to give more time for a pause between Sonatas Nos. 4 and 8, if only for mental breathing room, so that wasn't the wisest production choice there.
Fans of Lang Lang won't hesitate on this album, of course. For the general classical music audience, quirks of presentation aside, this is a perfectly fine Mozart sampler album of his music for piano, in both concertante and solo capacities.