Mike Ragogna: Let’s talk about The Mozart Album that you recorded with the Weiner Philharmonkier. In the past, you’ve taken on other composers, why Mozart this time out?
Lang Lang: First of all, I must say recording with Nikolaus Harnoncourt was always a big dream in my career. For me, he is the most unique and special interpreter of Mozart. We worked for two years on those concertos. He showed me the authentic way of doing the styling on those pieces. In a way I never experienced Mozart like this before.
MR: Were there other things you learned from him?
LL: Yes, absolutely. He’s the one normally who always plays on the period instrument. He plays the instrument from many, many centuries ago. He also uses the old bowing and articulation to play. In a way, it sounds very original but at the same time he is not a very conservative style person. He’s very liberal in music making. He’s very romantic. He has this wonderful inspiration which combines both very, very authentic bowing on top of a very liberal interpretation. That really gave me the idea to play a mozart concerto in this direction. He showed me the Mozart bird from Salzberg, Vienna. The country music, the church music, the folk dance, everything he explained to me is in the roots of it. You can feel that it’s kind of local music.
MR: From this collaboration and from recording a project based around this particular composer, did you discover anything new about Mozart?
LL: Yes. Mozart is someone who you think that you know about him and then he changes. He transforms his character all the time. He never stays in the same place more than two bars. So therefore his music is like a live drama. It’s an opera, it’s a movie. You’re watching a movie of one hundred different characters walking in and out. It’s beautiful. That’s Mozart.
MR: That must be very demanding for you. Is it challenging to keep up with all the drama?
LL: You need a lot of practice. There’s a lot of spontaneous, right-on-the-beat interpretations. There are a lot of turnovers. You can even see that he makes a lot of turns in his music. As much as you need to be very precise when you practice you need to be very slow and soft. With Mozart music you really need to practice slow and soft. You cannot practice in a loud way because then your ear doesn’t feel those precise interpretations anymore.
MR: Early on, you were taught the actual history of Mozart. But is there anything you feel you now know more about him from exploring his music as deeply as you have?
LL: Certainly. One thing that’s very important about Mozart is a letter he wrote to his father about his music and his personality. He said that his music is like a tree. You have the roots, which is the left hand, you also have the leaves, which is the right hand. He said he wanted the leaves to be really free and floating, but he wanted the roots to be very solid and give a good base and support. He is basically saying life should be like that. I really love that because you can be really free but you still have the gut to tell you what to do.
MR: Are there any pieces that musically illustrate what you’ve just explained?
LL: Yeah, I would say the slow movement of the G Major Sonata is like that and then the third movement, which you’d call the bird concerto, which is also a G Major Concerto, the third movement is like a bird. One other magical thing is when you see a chromatic scale going down it means Mozart has little tears in his eyes. Just a little bit of tears. That’s what Harnoncourt told me.
MR: You’ve recorded the Mozart album, you’ve recorded various themed albums, what are the different approaches you need to take with some of these other composers? For instance, what did you discover with Chopin? Obviously, Chopin is a lot gentler, but he’s also very precise.
LL: Yes. Chopin is already almost more than one hundred years later, so the piano as an instrument had become a much bigger instrument. You can play much louder than before. Mozart’s double forte still had a limit. Chopin’s time was already what you call the romantic time. Everything’s kind of like poetry and novels. Chopin added a lot of new technique already. The harmony is totally different because the romantic harmonies are quite different than the classical ones. There’s a lot of much longer phrases because the instrument can do that. Lizst, for example, basically stretched the piano a lot because he destroys pianos all the time and needed a new piano to be as powerful as himself. Then Rachmaninoff comes later and you need a very solid grand piano to play those pieces. If you play Rachmaninoff on Mozart that’s like today’s pianists playing on the keyboard. The descriptions are still the same, “Happiness,” “Deepness,” “Sadness,” but it’s like in a movie. You have 4k or 3D and there’s a different kind of dimension.
MR: As a thirty-two year old pianist, the amount of experience and exposure you’ve had and the amount of composers’ works you’ve recorded, do you feel like you’ve become a musicologist?
LL: I think that since I’m now doing a lot of teaching work and my foundation work I need to be more precise on the things that I’m telling to the kids; how to do interpretation and how to analyze the possible ways to play on the keyboard. We need to be very critical of ourselves to get more knowledge and to get more precise and accurate to what we are looking into. I need to be better at Chopin, better at Beethoven, better at Bach. I need to find solid points to convince myself and to convince our professional world of those interpretations. I think this is a great thing. I think kids need to go through that. But at the same time it’s also very important for a kid to realize by the end of the concert they need their entire soul to come out with their playing. They cannot just follow everything they have learned from the teacher. They need to find their own way and their own signature to prove they actually received the knowledge but at the same time live through the creative parts. That’s very, very important.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
LL: In our career we’re facing a lot of challenges, whether they’re professional challenges or personal challenges. There are a lot of things that you may have wanted to do in certain ways but in the end it may not be what you thought at first impression. The important thing for us is to always follow our dream and try to achieve what is best for yourself and what is best for our musical environment.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne