Lang Lang – The MOZART Album – Lang Lang, piano – Sony Classical 88843082532 (2 CDs), 66:35, 54:22 [9/30/14] *** :
This two-disc CD set represents superstar pianist Lang Lang’s first record devoted entirely to the music of Mozart, which seems to be something of a trend with Lang Lang of late, having also dedicated entire composer-themed albums in recent years to the music of Liszt and then Chopin. Any release by Lang Lang is typically cause for celebration; his absolutely flawless technique and seemingly limitless mastery of diverse repertory generally makes most of his recordings pretty close to the definitive version. And in terms of that flawless technique, this record exhibits it in spades, although the collection is not without its problems – we’ll get to that a bit later! This collection was issued as part of a celebration of Lang Lang’s sold out series of performances at the Royal Albert Hall, which will also include DVD and Blu-ray discs to document those concerts.
Disc one presents two Mozart Piano Concertos, Nos. 17 and 24, recorded live at the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna earlier this year, with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. These performances are absolutely glorious in every way possible; the recorded sound is magnificent for a live recording – which we have all pretty much come to expect these days. It seems that more and more classical recordings come from live events – no need for expensive studio time, and it really makes a whole lot of sense – so many of today’s orchestras and soloists are such technicians that very little (if any) editing is probably required. And many audiophiles especially enjoy recordings that capture the ambient qualities of a legendary performance venue, such as in Vienna. Lang Lang’s playing is particularly expressive here, especially in the slower movements and cadenzas of each concerto; in the Allegretto of the No. 24, he paraphrases Lili Krauss’ cadenza to add his own very special touch. Disc one of this set is an undeniable triumph on every level.
Now here’s where the problems begin, with Disc two, which was recorded live at the very Royal Albert Hall concerts Sony Music is celebrating, and presents the solo piano performances. Now don’t get me wrong – Lang Lang’s playing is exemplary throughout; he totally masters this dizzyingly difficult repertory with aplomb aplenty. But with the exception of tracks 10-12, which were recorded in a different venue in Paris, the sound quality is just abysmal! Imagine that, a live recording at the Royal Albert Hall – one of the legendarily worst-sounding venues in the entire world, documented countless times by journalists over the decades – producing another awful-sounding recording. Perhaps it was a conscious decision to pick a massive space to really pack-em-in for the event, but they couldn’t have made a worse decision from an acoustical standpoint.
And here’s where my conundrum lies with this otherwise excellent set – the performances are phenomenal, and I’d easily give the set five stars based on sheer performance values. And I’d give Disc one five stars based on sound quality alone – but Disc two gets about two stars (maybe) because the sound quality is essentially awful – something that legendary engineer Tony Faulkner can’t even manage to overcome in his recording of the Royal Albert Hall concerts. Whether it’s just the ambient noise of the hall, or what, it sounds throughout as though a really loud HVAC system is blowing full blast for every recorded note of the RAH portions of Disc two. So that’s why only an average rating of three stars – if I were buying this as a historical recording, I’d have no quibbles going in with regard to the potential for some substandard sound. But for a new release – sorry, but it just doesn’t cut it, and trust me, I have a very high tolerance for flawed recordings. If possible, I’d stream this set first before making a purchase decision.