The concept behind Lang Lang’s new album Piano Book is so elegantly simple and appealing, it’s hard to believe no one has thought to do it before: Identify the most familiar and well-loved songs young pianists encounter early in their education and have one of the most celebrated and popular classical pianists in the world record them. With Piano Book, Lang Lang reaffirms his long-time commitment to inspiring and supporting young musicians by offering a definitive collection of essential masterpieces that will appeal to students and non-students alike. In the process, the Chinese-born artist demonstrates how universal classical music truly is when performed by the best of the best with an open heart and soaring spirit.
“I have long thought about creating an album that inspires every student to play with a new kind of standard in mind,” Lang Lang says. “When I was a kid, a recording like this didn’t exist.” He was influenced by a memory of hearing the Russian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz end his legendary 1986 Moscow recital with Schumann’s Träumerei and bringing the audience to tears. “Horowitz unified everyone’s hearts performing that piece,” Lang Lang recalls. “You would never think the piano could create those sounds and colors and memories. That recital really changed my way of thinking about piano as an instrument. It’s not just playing a simple piece. It’s truly alive in front of you. My intention was to play every piece we chose for Piano Book with the same devotion Horowitz did with Träumerei. I want to bring the same type of connection to people.”
The album features many songs that made Lang Lang want to become a musician. “This is the music that influenced me most during my early childhood, and also later in life working with and teaching young pianists,” he says. There’s Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, which Lang Lang performed at his first-ever recital at age five, and which holds “an important place in my heart because it made me feel the stage as a place of warmth,” and Bach’s Prelude in C Major and Minuet No. 1 in G Major. “Bach is everyone’s inspiration,” Lang Lang says. “Beethoven and Brahms took inspiration from Bach. He made the structure, the harmony motifs, the counterpoints. Everything starts with him. We need to respect that.”
Whether one is a piano student or not, the melodies from many of the pieces on Piano Book will be familiar, whether it’s Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, or Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor, otherwise known as “Für Elise,” which Lang Lang reckons might be the world’s most popular cell phone ringtone. “I recorded this piece because I always wanted to have an incredible interpretation that children could to refer to while they’re learning it, rather than play it like….” here Lang Lang mimics a heavy-handed newcomer.
Produced by 10x-Grammy Award winner Christopher Alder, and recorded in July and August 2018 in both Beijing and London, Piano Book also features several selections from films and television shows, including Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” Yann Tiersen’s “La Valse d’Amélie” (from the film Amélie), and influential composer Max Richter’s “The Departure,” which was featured prominently in the HBO show The Leftovers. “I like pieces with a cinematic visual because when I was a kid I didn’t really access much of the world outside my little city,” Lang Lang says. “So I always imagined, ‘What does Switzerland look like? What does America look like?’ I created strange stories in my mind.” Furthermore, Lang Lang was determined that Piano Book not be “a dry, children’s exercise record. We needed to have those very watery, mysterious, colorful, impressionistic, and peaceful pieces of music.”
Piano Book is the first recording Lang Lang will release since taking more than a year off to recover from an injury to his left arm. “I had a lot of time to think over the year and three months,” he says. “It was the first time I didn’t have to worry about deadlines. I had time to consider my future and why I do this. It led me to reflect on the first part of my career, which was very intensive scheduling, flying, and playing. Many nights I’d feel strange around 7 or 8 pm because my body was ready to perform, but instead of that, I was trying to relax my hands and arm. It made me realize that you can’t force something that you’re not ready for, even if you feel you’re ready, including music-making. The process has affected my playing. I’m much more relaxed and able to take my time to go deep into the enjoyment of just playing.”
If anyone has earned the right to slow down and enjoy the moment it’s Lang Lang. His 25-year-career has been a whirlwind — studded with high-profile performances (the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics viewed by more than four billion people, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony and concert for President Barack Obama), significant musical partnerships with the world’s greatest conductors (Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, Sir Simon Rattle), and trail-blazing achievements (he is the first Chinese pianist to be engaged by the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic orchestras). But Lang Lang considers it his “second career” to bring music into the lives of children around the world, both through his own volunteering and mentoring and through the Lang Lang International Music Foundation, whose mission is to cultivate tomorrow’s top pianists, champion music education at the forefront of technology, and build a young audience through live music experiences. Piano Book is yet another way into young people’s hearts and minds.
“Music changed my life and changed the lives of many of my musician colleagues,” Lang Lang says. “It inspires children to have a more creative mind. It opens your heart, your senses, and your feelings. It also makes your world much bigger and broader. Plus, you will make many more friends through music!”