Who Played It Better: Lang Lang vs. Argerich
by Seth Colter Walls | November 20, 2013
It's been a good season for performances of Prokofiev piano concertos. Last month, we heard Yuja Wang's grand take on the second concerto (along with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra). This month, we're checking out Lang Lang's approach to the much more famous Prokofiev third piano concerto, along with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.
That orchestra has quite a history with the Prokofiev third piano concerto, given their memorable 1967 recording of the piece with the then-young soloist Martha Argerich. (Claudio Abbado conducted the orchestra on that date.) That recording remains something of a gold standard: Argerich's triumph resides in her ability to sell Prokofiev's dissonances and his quieter, more lyrical asides with equal intensity. (And the orchestra matches her perfectly: Check the way soloist and ensemble collaborate on the second movement's rambunctious third variation.) Despite the extreme contrasts of mood indicated by Prokofiev, in the hands of Argerich and the orchestra, the entire concerto feels unified while remaining plenty eventful.
Lang takes a different approach during his turn with the Berliners. There's a drier, pointillist quality to the performance (as though appreciating that Argerich can't be bettered for presenting an overall sense of blendedness). The final dance of piano acrobatics, in the first movement, is as crisp as it can get; Lang holds fast to that strategy throughout. Rattle keeps tempi a bit slower than Abbado, perhaps to help frame Lang's less romantically inflected approach. Partisans of the Argerich recording are not likely to throw over her interpretation easily, but it's always good to hear new takes on old warhorses. The appended playlist presents Lang's newly recorded version first, followed by Argerich's benchmark version, the better to let you judge for yourself. Enjoy!