Lang Lang


Click here for the official website for the album!
People have often bracketed Tchaikovsky’s great A minor Trio together with Rachmaninov’s first Trio élégiaque, and in Lang Lang’s view this is appropriate. Rachmaninov’s teenage work reflects a huge influence by the older composer, he says, and the trios inhabit the same emotional world: “Both works are deeply emotional, but what really makes you cry is their beauty.” I catch him, Mischa Maisky and Vadim Repin at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland after they’ve given a performance of these trios. “We are trying to live through them together,” says Repin. “This is our essential preparation for the recording.”
This concert may have been their first joint foray, but the chemistry is already good. It needs to be, since their personalities are big, their backgrounds are diverse, and – with Maisky at 61, Repin at 38, and Lang Lang at 27 – they effectively represent three generations. The ebullient Maisky, born in Riga, has had a highly unconventional career: his inbuilt rebelliousness led to his being put in jail by the Soviet authorities, then in a work camp, then in a mental hospital, before what he calls his “repatriation” in 1972 to Israel, from where his career as a soloist and chamber player took off. Repin, whose playing is now routinely compared with that of his hero David Oistrakh, only gravitated to the violin because, when he was five and wanted to attend the music school in his hometown of Novosibirsk, the one available place was for that instrument. Lang Lang’s well-documented rise from obscure provincial origins in China has catapulted him into non-stop global orbit: he brings not only a different generational approach to this music, but a profoundly different cultural perspective as well. “Lang Lang’s youthfulness makes his playing shine, as though it’s full of light,” says Repin. “Mischa and I are trying to harness that quality.”
Tchaikovsky’s trio is subtitled “In memory of a great artist”, and marked a major turning-point in his compositional life. The artist in question was the pianist and conductor Nikolay Rubinstein, the raffish and disorganized bon vivant who taught Tchaikovsky at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and had more influence on the composer’s life than anyone else. When Rubinstein died in 1881, aged 46, the shock to Tchaikovsky was greater than that of any death since that of his mother 27 years before. The man who had given him his first professional job, nurtured his gifts and championed his cause had been an integral part of his world.
Impelled by the desire to enshrine the memory of his friend and mentor, Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck: “Do you remember you once advised me to write a trio for piano, violin and cello, and do you remember my reply, in which I openly declared my antipathy for this combination of instruments? Suddenly, despite this antipathy, I have conceived the idea of testing myself in this sort of music . . . I have already written the beginning of a trio.” Within three weeks the work was complete, and in March 1882, on the first anniversary of Rubinstein’s death, it was performed to acclaim at the Moscow Conservatory. Many people, both then and more recently, have regarded the variations in its second movement as embodying aspects of Rubinstein’s character – Tchaikovsky’s own “Enigma” Variations – despite the composer’s denial that this was so. It became one of his best-loved works, and was played at his own memorial concerts. As Repin observes, this work is a quasi-concerto for all three instruments, even if the piano part does reflect the dominant virtuosity of a master. And though there are moments of piercing sadness – most notably the “Adagio con duolo” section of the first movement, and the heart-rending close with its rise-and-fall melody in parallel sixths – the overall mood is affirmative, even exuberant. In Variation 3 the piano fairly gallops along, 5 is like a musical box, while Variation 6 is a waltz, 8 is a spirited fugue, and Variation 10 is a strikingly Chopinesque mazurka.
Yet the trio’s after-life has been clouded by the assumption – above all in Russia – that the long and dramatic coda can only work if several minutes are excised. Even Maisky admits to having initially had mixed feelings about this. “When I recorded the trio with Martha Argerich and Gidon Kremer in 1998 – we were all playing it for the first time – I felt that though it had gorgeous moments, it seemed on the long side, and was quite uneven. Now that I am used to playing it uncut, I can’t understand why I ever felt that. I enjoy every bar.” Tchaikovsky, he says, “wasn’t the kind of composer who puts a touch of genius into every note, and whose music has an indestructibility no matter how you play it. But he did have moments of incredible genius. The interpretation is of key importance.”
Rachmaninov wrote his first Trio élégiaque, with its characteristically big-boned opening theme, in 1892 when he was only 19, but its pianism is mature. It is conceived in a single sonata-form movement and ends, as Tchaikovsky’s trio does, with a funeral march. Once the theme has been announced by the piano, the violin and cello take turns to present its steady evolution. “I grew up with Rachmaninov,” says Maisky, “and his music is in my blood, but I only recently began to play this piece. It’s very unpretentious, but also very beautiful, and enjoyable to play. Though he was one of the greatest pianists ever, and most of his music was written for piano, some of it almost sounds as if it was written for cello, so here I feel very much at home.” For Lang Lang the most exciting moment is the very beginning: “When Mischa and Vadim begin playing, it feels like a time machine starting, and after the first few notes you are inside its world.”