New Classical Tracks: Star Power

by Julie Amacher
November 3, 2009

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Russian Piano Trios: Lang Lang, Vadim Repin, Mischa Maisky (Courtesy of DG Records)

"Lang Lang's youthfulness makes his playing shine, as though it's full of light," explains violinist Vadim Repin. On their new recording, Repin says he and cellist Mischa Maisky are trying to harness that quality. This new release unveils another side of pianist Lang Lang, who is best known as a flamboyant solo artist. On this recording we hear how Lang Lang can finesse his way through Russian chamber music with two musical giants.

Three generations of performers are represented on this new release. Cellist Misha Maisky is 61 years old. His unconventional career path involved being jailed by Soviet authorities because of his rebellious nature. Then he was sent to a work camp and a mental hospital before going to Israel in 1972, which is where his career finally took off. Violinist Vadim Repin grew up in Russia's third-largest city, Novosibirsk. He gravitated to the violin at age five, and today is often compared to his hero, legendary violin virtuoso David Oistrakh. At age 27, Chinese pianist Lang Lang brings youth, and a completely different cultural perspective to this musical ensemble.

The trios featured on this new release are early works by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The recording opens with Rachmaninoff's "Trio Elegiaque" No. 1 in G minor. Lang Lang's favorite part of this trio is the very beginning when Mischa Maisky and Vadim Repin begin to play a quiet wave of minimalist sound. It feels like a time machine starting, Lang Lang clarifies, "and after the first few notes you are inside its world."

Rachmaninoff was just 19 when he wrote this trio, yet he demonstrated great skill as a composer by including a wide array of musical colors in the virtuoso piano part. Those colors burst off the page in the hands of Lang Lang. Rachmaninoff was a great pianist himself, and wrote extensively for piano, but Mischa Maisky says his music almost sounds as if it was written for cello. That's why he feels very much at home performing this piece. Maisky grew up with Rachmaninoff, "His music is in my blood," Maisky admits. Yet he says he only recently began to play this trio. "It's very unpretentious, but also very beautiful, and enjoyable to play."

The spirit of the elegiac theme is constantly evolving as it's tossed between the three instruments, and like Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio which inspired this work, it ends with a funeral march.

Rachmaninoff's "Trio Elegiaque" and Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor are cut from the same emotional cloth. Lang Lang says these works are deeply passionate and he explains, "What really makes you cry is their beauty." Tchaikovsky's trio is a gorgeous tribute to his teacher, friend and mentor, Nikolay Rubenstein, who died suddenly at the age of 46. The fervent opening melody becomes more memorable in each variation. Vadim Repin sweetly introduces the theme, while Mischa Maisky echoes its beauty. When the piano is handed the theme, Lang Lang brings out the power and the elegance of this exquisite melody.

The interplay between the musicians in this passionate performance of Tchaikovsky's Trio is incredibly engaging. Each soloist has the opportunity to take the lead in the waltz-like sixth variation, yet they never overpower one another. The tenth variation is a delightful mazurka reminding us of Tchaikovsky's talent for composing ballet and dance music.

Just as Rachmaninoff was influenced by Tchaikovsky, the three superstars on this new release gathered insight from one another, allowing them to bring out the passion and the beauty of these two masterpieces.

Russian Piano Trios: Lang Lang/Vadim Repin/Mischa Maisky (DG 13504-02)