On a recent car trip along Route 101 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where he was scheduled to play the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto for the opening night gala of the San Francisco Symphony, superstar Chinese pianist Lang Lang decided he wasn’t going to let the hours and scenery slip by without some kind of soundtrack. So while the driver sped onwards, he took the opportunity to listen to the final master of his first chamber music recording: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio Op. 50 in A minor and Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque in G minor. It was the proverbial car-stereo test. So, how did it sound?
“It’s really great,” he said, speaking via cell phone from the car, his Tchaikovsky blaring. “We really worked a lot on bringing the emotions and balancing the sound because this piece can get very loud, like a lot of Russian music. We wanted to keep the energy and make everything very detailed.”
Lang Lang may be one of the most sought after solo concert artists on the circuit, but for this project he was joined by Russian violinist Vadim Repin and Latvian cellist Mischa Maisky, both famed for their virtuosity. The classical supergroup teamed up to tackle the heavyweight Russian chamber music for a record released by Deutsche Grammophon.
The starry trio had performed the chamber works once before at the Verbier Festival in July. This live rendition was filmed; the footage captures not only the epic, tragic sweep of the Tchaikovsky in particular, but also the sheer physical energy it takes to get through almost fifty minutes of music. At the end of the performance, the dynamic trio is glistening with rock-star sweat as the applause cascades over them.
“It’s really a concerto for three instruments,” says Lang Lang.
Vadim Repin agrees that there’s virtue in what he calls the “screaming personality” of feeling that the music inspires. “It’s like you’re in the middle of a concerto, or something that’s three dimensional,” he says. But he notes that, because each of the performers has a strong personality as a soloist, “there is more of a chance to hear conflict in the music.”
There is, he explains, a material difference between these impromptu collaborations and longstanding chamber groups — be they trios, quartets or quintets — whose goal is to work and breathe in one, whole musical expression. But, says Repin, there’s something unique about the Tchaikovsky trio that accommodates personal expression. “It’s the most wonderful showpiece for three instruments.”
Tchaikovsky wrote the trio between 1881 and 1882 and dedicated it to the “memory of a great artist,” his mentor Nikolai Rubinstein. Initially the composer was reluctant to write a trio, expressing dislike for this combination of instruments. “The lyrical and wonderfully warm timbres produced by the violin and the cello can be accompanied by the king of instruments, but the latter tries in vain to show its ability to sing against its rivals,” he wrote in a letter to his patroness friend Nadezhda von Meck. Nevertheless, he eventually produced the work, all the while maintaining that homogeneity between the instruments was a tricky proposition.
For Mischa Maisky, the trio is a source of endless fascination. The sixty-one-year-old cellist recorded it in 1998 as part of another classical supergroup with Martha Argerich and Gidon Kremer. And this year, after playing it with Lang Lang and Repin at Verbier, he performed it again a week later with Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin and American violinist Joshua Bell. “Obviously, we were playing the same piece,” he says, “but I can assure you it was quite different when I played it again.”
What excites Maisky about chamber music, which he jokingly calls his hobby (his job being his solo performances), are the constantly shifting musical sands that result from teaming up with new collaborators. “All the time there are different ideas and energies,” he says. “Music is such a living organism, and how it sounds depends on the musicians, the weather, how you slept last night and, of course, the audience.”
So how did it feel working with the youngest member of this trio, Lang Lang?
“He is one of the most exciting young musicians, and plays with incredible energy,” says Maisky. The fact that both Maisky and Repin had played the trio before with other pianists did not seem to faze Lang Lang, who had to establish his own voice in relation to these seasoned string players. The pianist managed to bring “something new and fresh and youthful” to the recording, says Repin.
Following the Verbier performance in July, the trio reconvened in August in Hamburg for the two-day recording session, which was intense but fun. The supergroup retired to a local Japanese restaurant after their first long day in the studio to eat sushi and crack jokes like the best of friends.
This is critical, says Lang Lang. “If you have a really good chemistry as a team you will share yourself. That’s what this recording is about.”
He goes on to describe his experience in sporting terms. “When you play a concerto, the lead player is like the striker in a football team. But playing in a trio, you have to pass the ball constantly, like playing in a basketball team.” he says.
In the car, with the California scenery zipping by, Lang Lang listens to the recording with Russia on his mind. “This music is grandioso, just like those concertos by Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky,” he says. “It describes a huge landscape, perhaps a very deep ocean or something with the characteristics of open space.
“But at the same time, chamber music is very detailed, and we really had to go very deep inside to discern new musical lines and harmonies.”
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.