Lang Lang is now 30, a psychological milestone for his admirers as well as for him. But a significant shift was heard in the summer at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, when even his encore repertoire was played with a strong sense of what the music had to say, rather than how well it could trap the claps.
On the new disc, light and shade are more evenly balanced. Lang Lang has always been able to draw velvety sounds from the keyboard, but preferred more aggressive ones. He still employs the penetrating, percussive side of the instrument in the Etudes Op. 25, the minor-key ones erupting with a Lisztian fury.
But the difference is most obviously heard in Etude Op. 25 No. 5. The halting rhythms come off like a tragicomic character portrait, but framed in the final moments by an upward flourish that could easily be merely impressive but instead unfolds slowly, each note taking on a greater air of victory. Music that previously seemed charmingly clumsy and trivial has a sudden metamorphosis into divine simplicity.
Similarly, the disc's two Nocturnes ( Op. 15 No. 1 and Op. 55 No. 2) unfold with Mozartean precision. Great Old World pianists strove to play as if each of their fingers had its own separate brain. Lang Lang's digits have never had such specific, independent intelligence. So one shouldn't be surprised that the flashy Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise receives a performance that never plays to the gallery.
Oddly, the disc ends anticlimactically with a wispy, pop-song version of the Etude Op. 10 No. 3 titled "Tristesse," from the film The Flying Machine. Positioned at the end of the disc, it's easily avoided.
Among other recent Chopin discs, Lang Lang has significant competition, even if Pollini's set of Preludes Op. 28 (Deutsche Grammophon **1/2) is maddeningly uneven, expressively perfunctory in some moments and brilliantly solving pianistic balance problems in others. Chopin's ever-winning Mazurkas recently arrived in two strong-minded recordings by the seasoned Russell Sherman (Avie ***1/2) and up-and-coming, camera-friendly Pietro de Maria (Decca ***). Both are worth hearing, though Sherman's more personal moments have infinitely more truth and authority.
The pianist everybody has to fear, though, is the Georgian fireball Khatia Buniatishvili, whose Chopin (Sony Classical ***1/2) has the steel-fingered qualities that were a bit of a turnoff in her previous Liszt album, but fused with an incredibly concentrated lyricism that makes her perfectly at home with Chopin at his deepest, as in the Ballade No. 4.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.