Through the pages of history, we have often found talent among humanity that transcended our thoughts, changed our perceptions and fuelled our imagination.
In recent times in sport, we witness the talent and artistry of Roger Federer on the tennis court and Tiger Woods on the golf course. In performing arts, the plethora of movie-making talent of Hollywood has entertained and engaged our hearts and minds for decades.
In the most recent decade, the musical ingenuity of a concert pianist is resonating in concert halls around the world from the Royal Albert Hall in London to the Carnegie Hall in New York. And on last Friday, 10 June 2011, after a seven-year lapse, the virtuosity that is Lang Lang returned to the main concert hall of the Sydney Opera House, playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no. 2 in C minor.
Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no. 2 in C minor
”Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music” – Rachmaninoff
There is something mysterious about this piano concerto that fuels my emotions no matter how many times I listen to it. Perhaps it is the dark haunting melodic lines, the grandeur and passion of the orchestration or the stark contrast of beautiful colours between movements.
Or it could simply be the creative genius of Rachmaninoff who dedicated the success of this piano concerto to Russian physician Nikolai Dahl, who helped the composer recover from several years of deep clinical depression as a result of his “failed” first symphony composed immediately before this masterpiece.
The video above is a synopsis in 2004 by Lang Lang who played this piece at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatoire, where he describes the music as “makes you start dreaming”, “always under pressure”, “not comfortable”, “huge lines that shows the beauty of this big country and the Russian soul”.
Lang Lang’s interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto no. 2 in C minor, 10 June 2011, Sydney Opera House
I have now heard three different pianists play this piano concerto at the Sydney Opera House – Vladimir Ashkenazy, the current conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Cristina Ortiz and now Lang Lang. I only vaguely remember Ashkenazy’s interpretation as it was in the 1980s that I attended the concert as part of an assignment for my music elective in high school.
Tonight’s program is conducted by Jahja Ling, an Indonesian born American conductor who won the Jakarta Piano Competition at 17 and a year later was awarded a Rockefeller grant to attend the Julliard School, where he studied piano with Mieczyslaw Munz and conducting with John Nelson.
Lang Lang played the opening passage as broad as it could be, with his distinctive emphasis of the left hand octaves to simulate the tolling of Russian bells in Moscow.
On tonight’s performance, I find Lang Lang’s interpretation to be distinctive with much rubato playing to accentuate melodic lines and tempo variations to bring contrast. His interpretation tonight is decisively more subdued than his recorded version in July 2004 with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre under conductor Valery Gergiev. However, this is not to say it is any less dramatic.
What was perhaps more telling is his pianistic ability to articulate some of the delicate and complicated filigree of melodic motives and his attempt to connect with the audience.
It should also be noted that Lang Lang was only 22 years old in 2004 and perhaps tonight’s interpretation is a signal towards greater maturity in his playing where the “Russian soul” is being consciously communicated with a little more poise and balance.
It is difficult to compare the acoustics of the concert hall of the Sydney Opera House with other prominent music halls around the world but suffice to say it can be significantly improved.
Below is the full rendition of this piano concerto performed by Lang Lang.
Lang Lang played Chopin’s etude in F minor Opus 25 no. 2 as an encore.
This is a relatively difficult piece to play well because of polyrhythms where the right hand plays quaver triplets while the left hand plays crotchet triplets. Lang Lang’s playing of the continuous right hand triplets with deft speed and extreme legato whilst succinctly accentuating each note of the melody is anything short of bewildering.
The video below is an interpretation of this etude by a seven-year old pianist.
As a classical musician, Lang Lang dares to push the traditional boundaries observed by many pianists. In doing so, he has also attracted criticism from purists who are used to convention. This group of listeners find it difficult to think outside the box and sometimes feel threatened when the orthodox is being challenged.
To me, Lang Lang should be commended for his courage in pushing these boundaries which conformist musicians are limited by. His playing offers fresh perspectives and many listeners are uncomfortable because they lack the imagination and creativity to conceive new ideas.
Music is not a science and whilst there are boundaries, flexibility and how we define our own relationship with music should be the key to greater appreciation.
Famous adaptations of Rachmaninoff’s music
The famous and song of the 70s “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen in the video above borrows heavily from melodic motives of the second movement of this piano concerto where Carmen thought was in public domain.
Eventual agreement with the Rachmaninoff estate meant later writing credits also acknowledged the composer in addition to Carmen. Growing up as a 70s kid helps as this beautiful song transports me back to my childhood.
”Full moon and empty arms” is another popular song by Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman and is based on a melodic motive in the third movement of this piano concerto.
The best known recording of this song was made by Frank Sinatra in 1945 in the video above and a host of other singers in later years.
My personal favourite is Caterina Valente singing this beautiful tune in the video above because I remember my parents have an LP of this recording in the 70s.
Lang Lang International Music Foundation
”Through music I want children to see a different dimension of life. I want to show them how music can help them achieve their dreams” – Lang Lang
Hailed as “the biggest, most exciting young keyboard talent I have encountered” by a Chicago Tribune music critic, Lang Lang counts his career highlight to be his performance at the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 which was reportedly viewed by more than 2 billion people around the world.
He is also the first chinese concert pianist to be engaged by both the Berlin and Vienna philharmonic orchestras.
In October 2008, he launched the Lang Lang International Music Foundation with the support of the Grammys and UNICEF. The mission of the foundation is to enrich the lives of children around the world through a deeper understanding and enjoyment of classical music.
Due to his world-wide popularity, Lang Lang has reportedly inspired up to forty million children to start playing the piano in his native China.
- About Sergei Rachmaninoff
- Rachmaninoff Etudes – Tableaux Opus 39 – Little Red Riding Hood
- Rachmaninoff Prelude in G major, Opus 32 no. 5
- Evgeny Kissin plays Liszt, Sydney Opera House
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