- Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
- Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Introduction and 24 Variations), in A minor for piano & orchestra, Op. 43
Lang Lang at the keyboard with Valery Gergiev at the podium might seem like too combustible a combination. The young pianist, after all, has quickly become famous for his high-octane virtuosity, while the conductor's take-no-prisoners approach has produced some truly incendiary orchestral recordings, especially in the Russian repertoire that he practically owns these days. What's surprising, then, is how well mannered their collaboration seems in these live recordings of two of Rachmaninoff's most popular works. The results are exciting, to be sure -- technically brilliant and full of personality, with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre (a.k.a. Gergiev's Kirov Orchestra, apparently reverting at long last to its pre-Soviet name) contributing a wonderfully Russian darkness of tone -- but also deeply musical, never flashy just for the sake of bravura effect. Having devoted himself to Tchaikovsky's First Concerto on an earlier CD, Lang Lang applies his mastery of grand Romantic gestures to another audience favorite here, Rachmaninoff's Second. Gergiev seems happy to follow the pianist in the music's ebb and flow, lingering along with each of the composer's expansive tunes like a series of beautifully nostalgic memories. If the performance of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is even more successful, it's doubtless because this work gives Lang Lang more opportunity to revel in high-spirited capers at the keyboard; the lyrical 18th variation is as beguiling as it needs to be, but it's the vigorous wit of the surrounding music that really brings out the pianist's sheer joy in music making. There's a crowded field of Rachmaninoff recordings on the market, both classic and recent (including, among the latter, Krystian Zimerman in the First and Second Concertos, and Stephen Hough in the complete works for piano and orchestra), but Lang Lang's meeting with Gergiev earns a solidly satisfying place among them.