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Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 3; Bartok: Piano Concerto No 2 / Lang Lang


Release Date: 10/22/2013 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 373225   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sergei ProkofievBéla Bartók
Performer:  Lang Lang
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Also available in a limited deluxe edition

PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 3. BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 2 Lang Lang (pn); Simon Rattle, cond; Berlin PO SONY 373225

The reader should be aware that this new release comes in three flavors: (1) the standard audio CD, which was the one sent for review; (2) a “deluxe” version (373226), which contains a bonus DVD with highlights from Read more the TV documentary At the Highest Level , along with artist interviews and footage of the Prokofiev recording session; and (3) a Blu-ray disc, which contains the full-length version of the excerpted material on the bonus DVD. Only the Blu-ray disc offers multi-channel, surround-sound options.


Admittedly, I felt a little put out at first that we were deemed worthy to receive only the standard audio release, but it’s hard to stay peeved when the disc contains two of my favorite 20th-century piano concertos in performances and recordings as spectacular as these.


Among my treasured LPs is the first recording I ever had of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, the one from which I learned the piece: RCA LSC 2507 with Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony conducted by Walter Hendl. The Prokofiev was oddly mated, so I thought, and still do, with MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2. But I loved the Prokofiev and played it over and over again. I never tired of hearing those spiky rhythms, sinuous melodies shot through with sharp dissonances, and dazzling keyboard effects.


Listening to this new recording by Lang Lang, all I can say is, “Move over, Van Cliburn.” This is the most thrilling performance of the Prokofiev I’ve ever heard or expect to be equaled in my lifetime. It’s true that in issue 32:6 I was blown away by a performance of the Concerto by William Kappell with Leopold Stokowski conducting the New York Philharmonic on a Music & Arts CD. But fantastic as Kappell was in that 1949 performance captured live, the mono recording simply can’t match in detail, impact, and sheer sonic incandescence this new Sony release.


After the brief orchestral introduction, Lang Lang tears into the piano part at a tempo faster than Cliburn’s, though not faster than Kappell’s, and delivers the score’s brittle, percussive keyboard passages with the ping of a pickaxe striking flint. But the piece is not all sparks and spikes. There are moments when Prokofiev succumbs to Rachmaninoff-like impulses of Romantic rhapsodizing, as in the first movement’s secondary theme area; and in those moments, Lang Lang and Rattle engage Prokofiev in what can only be described as a three-way love fest. Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic’s contributions to the performance cannot be overstated, nor can those of recording engineer René Möller and producer Christoph Franke. The degree of detail one hears in the orchestra is amazing, and the Berlin players respond to Rattle and Lang Lang with incredible alacrity. This is a Prokofiev Third for the ages.


Lang Lang’s Bartók Second is also exceptional. You’d never know by listening to the way the Lang Lang tosses it off that the piece is so technically difficult it has been deemed nearly unplayable by more than one well-known artist. That may be, but it hasn’t deterred quite a few famous pianists from performing and recording the work, among them, Géza Anda (from whose Deutsche Grammophon recording with Ferenc Fricsay leading the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin I originally learned the piece), György Sándor, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini, and Leif Ove Andsnes, and that’s by no means a complete list. Still, there is fewer than half the number of recordings of the Bartók than there is of the Prokofiev, and I think that’s due not only to the difficulty of the Bartók but to the fact that it’s not as immediately appealing or as listener-friendly a work. Lang Lang and Rattle should go a long way to changing that perception.


It’s hard to believe, I know, but Lang Lang is now 32. I also know that when the pianist first came on the scene as a Wunderkind, some of his early recordings, such as his Rachmaninoff 3 with Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic on Telarc, were received with a degree of skepticism by critics who generally tend to be circumspect when it comes to judging very young, unseasoned artists. But Lang Lang has proven himself not to be the flash-in-the-pan that some predicted. He is the genuine article, and this, his latest release, elevates him, in my opinion, to the very top rank of living pianists.


It should be mentioned that Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were on loan to Sony from EMI for this recording. It’s still early days in 2014, but look for this CD to be a candidate for concerto disc of the year award. Urgently recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

1.
Concerto for Piano no 3 in C major, Op. 26 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Lang Lang (Piano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1917-1921; USA 
2.
Concerto for Piano no 2, Sz 95 by Béla Bartók
Performer:  Lang Lang (Piano)
Conductor:  Simon Rattle
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930-1931; Budapest, Hungary 

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