I have been wanting to watch this documentary for the last five years. The Highest Level: A Music Documentary with Lang Lang, Simon Rattle & Berliner Philharmoniker was recorded over four days in Spring 2013. I had listened to the CD recording umpteen times before Lang’s performance of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3 with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on 30 November 2013 at the Esplanade Concert Hall.
The Blu-ray disc release chronicles Lang with Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Rattle, as they record the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3 in C Major and Bartok Piano Concerto No 2 in G Major. Watching this documentary is like being witness to a summit meeting of two great musicians. It gives an exclusive insight into the creation of an extraordinary recording: the preparation of the musicians, the recording sessions, the struggle to get the best sound and the post production phases. It is magnificent.
The documentary also gets up close with the musicians during rehearsals and through interviews. Lang warms up before each session by running his fingers up and down the keyboard practising his scales. He has been preparing the Prokofiev for 15 years, and the Bartok for 9 years. Both are physically demanding pieces and are unique. (Lang revealed that the first time he injured his hand was while practising the Prokofiev Concerto. It is like a warning to whoever is playing this piece and a reminder that I should never attempt to play it.)
Lang’s energy and mastery of the two concertos is simply marvelous, sensational and fantastic! (He even confessed to Rattle that, at one point, he played a wrong note!) His fingers flying over the keyboard is the most stunning view of choreography of the hand movement! The musicians in the orchestra too, think that Lang is really a phenomenon, and it seems that he can do anything. It seems the more difficult a passage is, the happier he is. He is totally involved, and truthful in his heart.
Even Sir Rattle confessed he didn’t know if he’d “ever heard a pianist who was able to be more than just uncannily accurate in this piece (Bartok 2) and then still have the technical ability in reserve to make it dance and to make it phrase. For so many pianists, it they can do it, it’s at the end of their technical ability; with Lang Lang, if he had any more technical ability, he would be a world menace. He always has something in reserve left”. He also said: “It goes without saying it’s extraordinary difficult and virtuoso to play and it’s an amazingly splashy display piece (Prokofiev 3), as well as with many moments of delicacy and beauty. And a very, very characteristic Lang Lang piece. He plays it absolutely to the manner born. It’s his kind of music”.
The documentary also shows Lang Lang at photo shoots, posing for the cover of the CD, including a glimpse into his dressing room (where his mother is waiting with the team) and a walk to the nearby Tiergarten in Berlin to get some fresh air. He talks about how it is important for him to “just chill out a little bit” by thinking about something else, making a little contact with friends; how onstage is very important but offstage is also very important for a balanced life (easier said than done); how he never gets tired of playing music as music always rescues him and saves the moment when he feels down.
Lang Lang’s playing is without question, but the combination of energy and relaxation together, is so unusual.