Lang Lang at the Royal Albert Hall

Lang Lang at the Royal Albert Hall concert. Lang Lang performs two sets of piano pieces and eight encores at the Royal Albert Hall in November, 2013.

The first set is as follows:
1. Mozart Piano Sonata No. 5
2. Mozart Piano Sonata No. 4
3. Mozart Piano Sonata No. 8

The second set:
1. Chopin Ballade No. 1
2. Chopin Ballade No. 2
3. Chopin Ballade No. 3
4. Chopin Ballade No. 4

The encores include:
1. Ponce Intermezzo No. 1
2. Lecuona ...Y la negra ballaba!
3. Zuqiang Wu and Mingxin Du The Dance of the Waterweeds
4. Mozart "Rondo alla Turca" from Piano Sonata No. 11
5. Schumann Davidsbündlertänze
6. Chopin Waltz No. 6 "Minute Waltz"
7. Chopin Nocturne No. 16
8. Scriabin Étude in D-sharp minor

Directed by Christian Kurt Weisz; Technical Manager was Mario Mentel; produced by Bernhard Fleischer. Released in 2014, program was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: A-

The imp-angel is back! Everybody is worried about the death of classical music; but, if it's really dying, it ain't Lang Lang's fault. He plays all over the world at the rate of about 20 gigs a year, usually solo recitals.  He has made quite a few CDs recently with Sony. And now we have his 2nd HDVD, made in 2013 when he sold 10,000 tickets for 2 performances at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

How do you play piano for 5,000 people? Elegant casual dress disarms them. Exaggerated body language and facial expressions help connect to them. And to be sure they can hear everything, raise the volume of the soft passages. (My impression is that the piano was not amplified.) Convince them that your stage persona is your real affable, friendly, ingratiating self. Put yourself right in their middle so you can touch them as you go "behind stage" for break. And keep the whole place dark and use purple spotlights, as you can see from my first screen shot below. (The artwork on the keepcase show an illuminated hall, but that is false light created by post production editing.) Finally, show you're having fun, and they will too:

Director Weisz and his crew got the cameras set up right so the keyboard always looks rectangular:

The next 5 shots come from the Mozart sonatas:

Now Lang Lang digs into the Chopin Ballade No. 1 (four shots):

Two shots from the Chopin Ballade No. 2:

Below the end of the Chopin Ballade No. 4:

The eight encores were not as impressive as you might think. Most are very short. The "Minute Waltz" was way too short at 1 minute, 34 seconds. "Minute" here in French means "small" rather than "equal to 60 seconds." Of course the phase "minute waltz" in English can also mean "small waltz," but English speaking folks will usually assume that Chopin's "Minute Waltz" is supposed to be played really fast. Which is what Lang Lang does. This turns out to be just a stunt, and not a pretty one. The real Small Waltz by Chopin is supposed to be played in about 2 1/2 minutes. The Scriabin Étude is the last and most substantial encore; the following screenshot shows Lang Lang's elation that the concert is over and all is well.

I tried to compare the performances here to a few legacy recordings. Mozart wrote Sonatas 4 and 5 when he was 18, and they are not very popular. He wrote Sonata 8 at age 22, and it has been recorded many times. I pulled from my shelf the 1965 recording of Sonata 8 by Denis Matthews published by Vanguard Everyman Classics (SRV-196 SD). This is not a fair comparison because Vanguard Everyman was a "quality budget" label, and Matthews was not a household name. But the vinyl pressing is immaculate and there is no noise. I was surprised to hear how "tinny" the right-hand part sounded and how faint the left-hand part seems now. This suggests that only the very best LPs are going to sport sound competitive with a decent HDVD.

I found on my shelf several versions of the Chopin Ballade No. 1: an LP from 1968 of Horowitz playing at Carnegie Hall (Horowitz on Television, Columbia Masterworks MS 7106) and a CD from 1988 of all the Chopin Ballades played by Krystian Zimerman (DG Stereo 423090-2).

I liked the Horowitz performance the best---he played with the most eloquence and panache. Also, I was surprised to hear the the dynamic range of the LP was greater that the HDVD! It appears that Lang Lang, to be heard by his huge audience, has to play his soft parts louder than he probably would play them in a studio recording session. On the other hand, there is some noise on the LP, and the piano sounded more natural on the HDVD than on the LP. I found the performance by Krystian Zimerman was competitive with Lang Lang, but that the HDVD (recorded at 48kHz/24-bit) sounded better than the Zimerman CD (recorded at 44kHz/16 bit).

The previous 3 paragraphs discuss sound only. Now we consider 2 additional factors. First, the HDVD gives you an excellent video record of Lang Lang's performance and something of the venue. (The Horowitz LP was recorded while Horowitz performed on color broadcast TV---even if this concert were available to watch, we have since moved to a new level in video quality.) I think it's fun to watch Lang Lang work, and I don't find his style distracting or in bad taste for someone who can sell 10,000 recital tickets. Second, you can buy the HDVD now for a modest price and have it delivered to you door in a few days. Now, good luck finding a copy of the Horowitz LP in mint condition.

Time for a grade. The Lang Lang program here isn't as earthshaking as Sony suggests. The best Mozart sonatas came later that No. 4 and No. 5. And the encores go by fast. I've seen any number of recitals that were more generous than this including events with A-list piano stars. On the other hand, how many pianists these days can withstand with such good-natured aplomb 2 hours of performance before 5000 people? I'm going to grade this "A-" with demerits for lack of 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling and a slightly light-weight program.