New Classical Tracks - Returning to Chopin

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
November 13, 2012
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — "The truth is that you don't need to know so much about music: when you hear Chopin, you get it somehow. His talents are so natural and the music he makes is like songs. I think that's the main reason his music is so approachable." Chinese pianist Lang Lang has been playing the music of Frederic Chopin his entire life. At age five, he was already performing Chopin's Minute Waltz, one of 20 works by the composer that appear on his latest release, The Chopin Album.

After Lang Lang came to America, his first teacher, Gary Graffman, encouraged him to expand his repertoire, so he began to play more Russian and German showpieces. In his 20's he started to play a lot of Beethoven and Schubert. Now at age 30, Lang Lang says, it's time to return to Chopin. "I played the complete Chopin Etudes in Beijing when I was 13. So now coming back to play those etudes, those beautiful nocturnes, waltzes and polonaises — it's just so beautiful. You're kind of re-experiencing the past, but at the same time, with much more experience to pull out."

"It was really a milestone in my career," Lang Lang explains, "to do Chopin's 24 etudes in one concert at the age of 13. When I think about it now, I think it's pretty crazy. But at the same time, it really brings a lot of great experience. Once you start to do those etudes well, similar passages in other composers' work feel quite simple. So I think in every pianist's career, I think you don't need to perform it all, but you should play it all. It will help you to get everything better - not just technique but understanding musical lines, to make the individual voice work, and to have a better control. We all learn that from the Chopin etudes."

Lang Lang admits that when he was a kid, Winter Wind, the Chopin Etude No. 11, was a real challenge to learn. "If I only played it by itself, maybe it's easier, but when you already have 22 etudes before that piece and then, you know, you need to explode in that piece — it's just so physically hard to control. I think that was the main problem. So when I came back to the etudes after 13 years, I started to practice this piece like crazy. And the good news is I found the right position for the hands, and now when I play this piece, it's quite smooth, not like, you know, super-challenging."

To mark Chopin's 200th birth anniversary in 2010, Lang Lang went to Poland to perform the composer's Piano Concerto No. 2, and another piece that appears on this recording which is a personal favorite.

"The Spianato, I've been playing for years. In the beginning I didn't like the piece. I just didn't get it, the structure. And then I went to Curtis when I was 15 and I hear one of my very good friends who's also studying with my teacher Gary Graffman. He played this piece and I was like, Wow! That's an incredible piece. Because the way he made a phrase really speak for itself, never getting bored by the same repeated rhythm. And I said I must learn this piece. And for the last two years, I think this piece is getting better because I got a better feel for the rhythm of the polonaise. At the same time, I played the 'Heroic' polonaise to have another aspect of that type of dance and watched people dancing the polonaise."

So how does a superstar like Lang Lang make every piece he performs sound so effortless? "You need to believe what you're doing," he explains, "Sometimes if you think it's difficult, then you are finished. You can't do it because you get scared. You need to be very relaxed when you perform."

Lang Lang's recipe for relaxing before a performance may be just as effective for those of us simply enjoying that performance, "Eating some strawberries before a concert — I think it's a good help. And some chocolate makes you happier. And also, you know, to do exercise after the concert. To stretch, breathe — breathing is the most important thing for pianists. It's almost like a swimmer — if you don't breathe, it will really have a bad effect. So you need to be relaxed — and then everything comes."

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