Chinese pianist Lang Lang has won plaudits for his mastery of the classical repertoire, performing with conductors from Daniel Barenboim to Simon Rattle. But his extrovert performances of works from Chinese folksongs to Metallica and Herbie Hancock have also inspired millions of children to learn the piano.
On his new album, The Disney Book, Lang Lang presents iconic movie melodies, reimagined in new versions written especially for him by some of the world’s leading arrangers.
Here, Lang Lang reveals the music that has helped to mould him as a performer.
‘Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is my all-time favourite, as well as the piece that launched my career. I listened to it in my little dormitory at the Shengyang Conservatory, and I was amazed at how powerful classical music could be. Before that I had listened to beautiful Mozart, but one day I heard these huge chords at the opening of the concerto, and I thought, ‘Wow!! This is something.’ Later this concerto launched my career when I played it with the Chicago Symphony [standing in for André Watts], and I’ve played it many times since.
‘As a ten-year-old in 1992 I watched a video cassette of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on my small television. I’d never heard Bach played this way. Such a strong personality! You think of Bach as being economic, but the way Gould played it was like a Picasso – he totally changed the shape, the melody, the voice, the articulation. It was the same material, but he turned it into another, amazing creature.
More recently I played the Goldberg Variations in concert and I’ve recorded two versions, one a live recording at Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig and another in the studio. Glenn Gould said it’s much better to record in a studio, and I also agree, but there’s something about the spontaneity of a live concert – those special moments, that you don’t get in the studio.
‘As students we are always practising exercises by composers like Czerny and Moszkowski, but Chopin’s 24 Études are on another level. They are not just about pure technique; they are about serving the music. This is why we have to practise, to make the bridge between the mechanics and real music, and this is what Chopin delivers in his Études. The first one I played was the ‘Black Key’ Étude, Op. 10 No. 5, and that was a very difficult piece for me at eight years old. Each year I learnt five or six more until, at 13, I played the complete Chopin Études in concert.
‘Nessun Dorma’, performed by Luciano Pavarotti, has to be one of my five choices. He has this special skill of making sunshine in the music. There are other great artists like Plácido Domingo or Jonas Kaufmann, but Pavarotti is The One. Somehow when he sings, that’s it – music is supposed to be like that. He has the talent, he has the high notes and he has that sound. It’s something you cannot practise – you have to be born with it, and what’s more, he brings this music to everyone, even people who don’t understand classical music.
‘I met Pavarotti in my late teens in Philadelphia, on one of his last tours, and I gave him a recording of my Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto to listen to. He wrote me an email which I still have, saying that he could see sunshine in my performance of the concerto. That was really inspirational for an 18-year-old!
‘We Are the World’ by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie is the song that breaks through all the barriers in this world. If we had more songs like that, there would be no wars. I play it often in charity concerts – including last year in Central Park during a charity concert for children.
‘I have a Foundation for children and I believe you have to be very creative in your approach to music education. There isn’t just one way of teaching; don’t stick rigidly to rules but let children find their own voice. My wife [pianist Gina Alice Redlinger] has been introducing our young son to music through some of the beautiful classical and crossover pieces from her album, Wonderworld. I think the pieces on my latest Disney album will be perfect for his early listening education. After all, my first experience of classical music came from an episode of the cartoon Tom and Jerry, ‘The Cat Concerto’!
Lang Lang’s new album The Disney Book is out now.
Lang Lang’s choices
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1
Lang Lang (piano), Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon DG 4742912
Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Glenn Gould (piano)
Chopin: 24 Études
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Puccini: ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Turandot