Lang Lang

The superstar pianist talks about why Beethoven is his musical god and the daunting task of performing all five of his Piano Concertos over three nights at the Royal Albert Hall

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Pianist Lang Lang may have played to thousands at the Hollywood Bowl and been under the scrutiny of millions during the televised Last Night of the Proms, but it’s a Beethoven Concerto Cycle with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra that he regards as a real milestone.

You’re playing all five Beethoven Piano Concertos over the course of three concerts at the Royal Albert Hall next March. What are you looking forward to about the series?
The Royal Albert Hall is one of my favourite halls to perform in anywhere in the world. And to do a Beethoven cycle with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia is going to be a very important milestone for me. Over the years I’ve worked on the Beethoven Piano Concertos with many great musicians, including Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons and James Levine, and everyone seems to have a strong opinion about Beethoven. His music is dynamic but so precise at the same time and he really demands a lot in the scores. When I was in Bonn in the Beethoven museum, I had the great privilege to see some of his hand-written scripts and when you see those original Urtext editions you realise his personality is totally in control of the music he’s creating.

Why are these Concertos so important to you?
Beethoven Piano Concertos are the most recognisable works for a pianist to learn and working on them over 10 years really helped me to understand not only Beethoven’s work but also other Classical and Romantic period piano concertos. The First of his Concertos is actually quite classical and then after the Third he switched to a more Romantic style. And the times changed too. So learning these great works helps me understand musical history better.

Do you have a favourite among the Concertos?
At the beginning of my career I really thought that No. 4 was my favourite, because I played it a lot at that time. And then gradually I started to think No. 3 was my favourite and when I was a kid No. 5 was my favourite. Then when I hear the great performers play No. 2 then No. 2 becomes my favourite. And then I had an amazing performance with Mariss Jansons of the Piano Concerto No. 1 at Carnegie Hall three years ago and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, this is my absolute favourite.’ So my favourite changes a lot. It’s like when you listen to Beethoven’s Ninth, Fifth or Seventh Symphonies and you’re trying to say which one is your favourite – maybe in a different time of your life or your career you might think differently. But at the moment the Piano Concerto No. 3 is my favourite.

Which is the most challenging to perform?
They are all very challenging to perform, particularly if you put them together! I thank God I have one day off in between – Thursday – so I think I’ll spend it in a spa to rest before the last concert on the Friday.

Whose music do you feel most at home playing?
It’s hard to say. It used to be Chopin when I was younger, now it’s harder to say because there are few composers I feel very comfortable with – I’m still trying to improve a lot of things. For me Beethoven was always very difficult and it’s only recently that I have had the confidence to play his music. Beethoven is a real musical god for me because his music is so deep.

You’ve already played in many of the top concert halls around the world and with some of the best orchestras. What do you still want to achieve?
Well to play at the Last Night of the Proms was great – but it would be nice to play another time. There are a lot of great things that I’ve done once and I’d like to do twice, three times, four times, five times. That’s my dream: to keep going.

Interview by Elizabeth Davis

Lang Lang will be performing Beethoven’s Piano Concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Royal Albert Hall on 20, 21 and 23 March. For more details click here. He will also be recording the Piano Concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic next year.

Lang Lang plays Liszt's Liebeslied: