Beethoven Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 4

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"BEETHOVEN PIANO CONCERTOS NOS. 1 & 4." Lang Lang, piano; Orchestre de Paris conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Recorded in Paris in January 2007; piano not identified. Cadenzas by Beethoven. Liner notes, "Lang Lang and Christoph Eschenbach in Perfect Harmony," by Pablo Galonce in English translated by Stewart Spencer. Opus 15: 38' 56". Opus 58: 35' 19". Deutsche Grammophon B0008725-02. ©2007. $16.99.

If you haven't heard of Lang Lang, you may pride yourself for being out of the loop on the au courant "superstars" of the piano world. As Janet Manheim wrote in the All Music Guide, "The initial burst of hype surrounding the appealing young Chinese pianist Lang Lang was followed by an equally strong backlash alleging that he was a pure product of panicked major-label marketing." The hype-and-backlash seems to have been replaced by praise balanced with quibbling. Lang has previously recorded five Romantic repertory concertos: Tchaikovsky First, Mendelssohn First, Rachmaninoff second and Third, and the Yen Chengzong/Xian Xinghais Yellow River Concerto. On this disk he turns to Beethoven, making his first Beethoven recording alongside Christoph Eschenbach and the Orchestre de Paris.

Beethoven is supposed to have usually inquired about the tempos of performances of his music that he had missed: I'll do the same here. Four of the six movements basically match the Italian tempo markings Beethoven wanted for them, but the middle movements are in no way, shape, or form what Beethoven indicated. Beethoven chose, for instance, to notate the middle movement of the Fourth in 2/4, which-combined with the Andante con mow marking-probably indicates that he wanted the quarter notes to be felt as the basic pulse (that is, in a duple rather than quadruple meter). Under Eschenbach, the orchestra begins with an Adagio tempo and pulls back with a careful ritard before Lang slows the tempo down even more at his entrance. Now, make no mistake: I'm not whinging about the freedom of tempo Lang adopts between notes-there's far too little of that in music making today. It's just that there's no sense of forward motion and consequently very little if any drama. And drama is what the whole concerto is about: I don't know of anyone who disagrees with Owen Jander's argument that the slow movement represents Orpheus' attempt to win back his beloved Eurydice from the land of the dead. Although the program notes quote Lang as saying that "It is a veritable operatic scena, it is Orpheus who has descended into the Underworld to beg for Eurydice to be restored to him," you can't hear that scena in this performance. Langs Orpheus is either already in favor of "tender boys" (as Orpheus, according to Ovid, later changes his orientation before he is destroyed by the Maeneds) or he's just not truly interested in Eurydice's rescue. In either case, it comes across, to me at least, as selfindulgent rather than dramatic playing. (Lang's 5' 46" timing compares to Artur Schnabel's 4' 49" 1947 recording with Izler Solomon and the Columbus Philharmonic Orchestra, Alfred Brendel's 4' 55" in his 1961 recording with Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic, Mauricio Pollini's 5' 06" in his 1976 recording with Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic, Robert Levin's 1998 performance at 5' 24" with John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestré Revolutionnaire et Romantique, and Steven Lubin's 4' 34" (!) in his praiseworthy 1988 recording with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music. …