Yes, that is a picture of Lang Lang playing a piano on a flooded heath. As I always say, chacun à son gout. He made quite a pig's ear of the Beethoven 'Emperor' Concerto at the Lucerne Festival the other week, providing surface beauty aplenty, but turning it into nothing more than a series of pretty episodes and pulling it around so much that several times it nearly fell apart at the seams. I pitied the poor wind players when he was supposed to be accompanying them. My full review will be in International Piano in due course.
Lang Lang, though, is a phenomenon that's more than the sum of its parts: he has become emblematic of our day and age (as I've explained in a lengthy essay introducing DG's new boxed set of his complete recordings 2000-2009). He could have been the world's greatest pianist and ten years ago seemed set to become just that; perhaps he still can be, once the commercial phase wears thin and deeper waters begin to beckon.
And he is at the centre of a tremendous pianofest that's fast approaching on the BBC and up in Leeds. The Leeds International Piano Competition is kicking off shortly and Lang Lang is to be its "global ambassador" (though exactly why isn't clear, as it's not as if he were a past winner, or even, as far as I'm aware, a past entrant...).
The piano is rolling off to flood the BBC airwaves much more thoroughly than the pond above. The three-legged monster is set to eat up the schedules on Radio 3 and BBC4, with extensive coverage of the Leeds contest on both, a series of Monday evening piano recitals on Radio 3, a major focus towards those actually learning the instrument, and much more. The full wonder of the piano is something exceptional, something magnificent, something magical, and if this unique season of pianomania can help to bring the essence of it to a wider audience, that is terrific. Let's see what happens.
For TV, Alan Yentob has made a movie about...oh yes, Lang Lang. I wish he would make one about someone else as well. Lang Lang has been featured on plenty of films before now, yet the truly towering musicianship of such artists as Grigory Sokolov, Mitsuko Uchida, Krystian Zimerman, Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu and plenty more remains scandalously under-documented.
Besides, if you want an interesting story out of China, then talk to Fou Ts'ong. We hear a lot about how 60 million children in China have taken up the piano under the influence of "the Lang Lang effect". We hear a lot about "tiger mums". We hear virtually nothing any more about the fate of an entire generation of Chinese artists and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. And we should. (I think it's high time I unearthed my interview with Ts'ong for the old Classical Piano magazine in the mid-90s and re-ran it...watch this space...)
Wishing all the very best of luck to all the entrants at Leeds - and may the finest musician win.
Finally, at the risk of being accused of just posting the BBC's press release, I'm just going to post the BBC's press release (or part of it) and then you'll know what they're doing.
Piano Season on the BBC is a major six-week season celebrating a single instrument. The season will explore the piano’s wide-ranging influence from the 1700s to the present day, as well as delve into the lives of the people behind the piano and the music created for it.
Highlights of the season include an in-depth insight into The Leeds International Piano Competition, a Jazz Battle live from Trinity Laban College Greenwich, a downloadable A-Z of the piano, Peter Donohoe’s 50 Greats, an online masterclass for budding pianists and well-loved personalities from around the UK, such as Woman’s Hour’s Jane Garvey, Radio 1’s Dev and Olympic medal winner Samantha Murray, taking up the challenge of learning the piano for the first time, with eight of them taking part in the season finale, Gala Concert in Cardiff on the 29 October 2012.
The season begins with extensive coverage of the Leeds International Piano Competition with live broadcasts of the Final on BBC Radio 3 and a six-part series about the finalists on BBC FOUR. The season will culminate on November 6th with a special episode of Imagine on BBC One focusing on Lang Lang as he turns 30.
The Leeds International Piano Competition on BBC FOUR will be presented by Suzy Klein, herself a pianist, and will showcase the six finalists and their concerto performances in full. The series will also take viewers behind the scenes to discover why ‘The Leeds’ is admired worldwide, take a closer look at the mechanical marvel that is the piano, speak directly to the woman behind the competition, Dame Fanny Waterman, who has inspired a generation of young musicians and delve into what makes a world-leading concert pianist. With arguably one of the piano world’s biggest stars taking an ambassadorial role with the competition, we’ll also hear from Lang Lang on why ‘The Leeds’ still matters as it approaches its 50th birthday.
BBC Radio 3 listeners can follow the competition live with both Concerto Finals nights and the Sunday Afternoon Gala Concert broadcast live from Leeds. Piano Season on BBC Radio 3 continues with artists such as Lang Lang, the Labeque Sisters and Malcom Martineau sharing their musical inspirations, as well as hearing from experts such as David Owen Norris and Peter Donohoe. Programmes will feature some of the greatest piano music ever written by composers who themselves loved and played the piano; including Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin alongside late night jazz programming exploring some of the greatest names in jazz pianism.
Monday nights will be 'Piano Night' when BBC Radio 3’s Live in Concert will offer listeners a series of unique piano recitals, from different corners of the nation, given by an array of international artists. Past Leeds finalist Sunwook Kim will play Beethoven and Schubert and Russian Evgenia Rubinova presents a programme of music from her native country; Ukrainian Alexei Grynyuk plays Chopin and Liszt; Pascal and Ami Rogé play French music for two pianos; while Radio 3 New Generation Artist Igor Levit performs Rzewksi’s celebrated and fiendishly difficult Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”; Ashley Wass and Huw Watkins team up to perform Robin Holloway’s pianistic tour-de-force “The Gilded Goldbergs”.
In BBC Radio 3 ‘s morning programmes, listeners will have the chance to hear the ‘50 Great Pianists’ – a short daily focus on one of the fifty greatest names from the world of pianism as selected by Peter Donohoe, while regular programmes such as ‘'Composer of the Week' will explore the lives of composers who wrote for the instrument, from Clementi to Rachmaninov. Special guests and piano lovers including as Kathryn Stott, Valentina Lisitsa, James May, Alan Rusbridger and Benjamin Frith will be joining the regular BBC Radio 3 presenters through the season to talk about their passion and experiences with the iconic instrument. There will also be online master classes, exploration of the historical and social history of the piano and an entertaining A-Z of the piano in BBC Radio 3’s late afternoon programme ‘In Tune’.
Trinity College London and the ABRSM [Associated Board of The Royal Schools of Music] will be helping budding pianists hone their skills in ‘110%’ on Friday nights. We’ll be treated to great performances of Piano Syllabus pieces and hear from the experts on what make them so special and how to get 110% in their exams.
Later on in the autumn, BBC One’s Imagine will return with a special documentary presented by Alan Yentob on Lang Lang, arguably one of the greatest pianists of his generation, as he turns 30. Lang Lang’s dazzling technique and musicality have inspired a generation of young pianists and delighted audiences throughout the world. Imagine follows him on an impressive schedule of concerts in Shanghai, New York, London and Berlin and reveals a personal story that began with great hardship and a family dream that nearly ended in tragedy. In this auspicious 'Year of the Dragon' Lang Lang celebrates his 30th birthday at a concert in Berlin with Herbie Hancock, opens his own piano school in China, plays for the Queen at the Diamond Jubilee, performs sell-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and becomes the first classical musician to headline at a British pop music festival.
BBC FOUR will also celebrate Lang Lang being appointed as the Global Ambassador of the Leeds International Piano Competition with two one-off documentaries on Friday 2 November. Lang Lang at the Roundhouse will give viewers an opportunity to see this stunning performance at London’s legendary Roundhouse, recorded at the iTunes festival in July 2011. Lang Lang performs a remarkable Liszt recital as the only classical music artist in a true rock-star surrounding, next to international pop stars like Coldplay, Adele and Linkin Park. And Lang Lang: The Art of being a Virtuoso follows Lang Lang through China, the US and Europe and offers a glimpse into life on tour with the superstar.
Photo credit: BBC/Steve Brown