Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 4

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 4
PERFORMER: Lang Lang (piano); Orchestre de Paris/Christoph Eschenbach
CATALOGUE NO: 477 6719

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Lang Lang’s image – photos often show him trying a little too hard to look serious – can be an obstacle to a proper assessing his music-making, something that works both ways. Yet while some of his recordings have emphatically said more about Lang Lang than the music he is playing, these Beethoven concertos are mostly idiomatic and stylish. There is some delightful playing in both works.

Lang Lang is at his best in the slow movements, where his range of colour and articulation illustrates his all-encompassing technical command and sense of both elegance and pathos. The dialogue of the Fourth Concerto’s Andante is especially touching: Lang Lang’s emotional poise is superbly judged while Eschenbach’s Parisian orchestra give solid support. The outer movements have infectious energy.

Nevertheless, in the First Concerto Lang Lang’s tendency to clip rhythms and highlight his variety of articulation detract from the music’s natural sense of flow. In the Fourth, there are exquisite moments of delicacy, but again Lang Lang’s focus on aspects of the music’s surface disjoints the broader architecture. And there are times – notably in the First Concerto’s cadenza but also at other rhetorical points of emphasis – when Lang Lang’s delivery tends to become over-inflated and aggressive.

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Kovacevich’s recording of No. 1 with Colin Davis retains a special blend of sparkling élan and thoughtful intensity, while Arrau’s majestic account of No. 4, also with Davis, is in another class. The sound is excellent, although the piano, not untypically for modern concerto recordings, feels artificially spotlit. Tim Parry