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Classical Album of the Week: Does Lang Lang Still Have Piano Magic?

Lang Lang's Piano Magic

October 1, 2018. Over-practicing is always dangerous, even for a superstar pianist with seemingly invincible technique. In April, 2017, when Lang Lang announced an intractable left arm injury due to “a stupid practice of Ravel’s left hand concerto,” many worried that he would never be able to return to the concert stage at all, let alone with his signature, over-the-top exuberance.

His comeback has been judiciously planned. He played a solo concerto for the first time, post-injury, at the Tanglewood Festival in July, 2018, with the Boston Symphony. But instead of the technically challenging Tchaikovsky First Concerto originally programmed, he substituted with a challenge of a more subtle nature, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.

Although he recently re-signed with Universal Music Group for future recordings, his former label Sony Classical just released a new album called Piano Magic.

An album of short pieces and encores, it’s not really new: the recordings were all made between 2010-2014, pre-injury. However, Piano Magic reveals the future direction Lang Lang may take.

To be sure, Lang Lang plays the fleet and thundering passages in Liszt’s “La Campanella” and “Rákóczy March” with precision, speed, and fireworks. That’s what he’s famous for. His rendition of “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin has some idiosyncratic rhythmic distortions, for which he’s also known. 

But what delights me most are elements of refinement that show an original musical imagination. This is especially true in his Chopin (“Minute” Waltz) and the lyrical expansiveness and delicacy of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 55 No. 2.

Probably my favorite track is the famous Rondo all turca, from Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 331. Lang Lang brings out the “Turkish” cymbal-like, percussive sound effects in a way I’ve never heard before, with a zip and sparkle that would have certainly made Mozart himself laugh.

Is Lang Lang the subtle Mozartean? It’s an exciting possibility, and it might be magical.

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Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.