The Disney Book (Deluxe Edition)

Lang Lang

The Disney Book (Deluxe Edition)

While innate talent and years of hard work set Lang Lang on the way to becoming a global superstar, he might never have touched a piano but for Tom and Jerry. The eternally warring cartoon characters grabbed his infant attention with their rip-roaring performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, musical lifeblood of the duo’s Academy Award-winning film The Cat Concerto. An upright piano was duly added to the family furniture and piano lessons to the three-year-old Lang’s routine soon after. The power of animation to inspire young minds and introduce millions to classical music stands behind Lang Lang’s latest album for Deutsche Grammophon. The Disney Book taps into the legacy of one of the most influential cultural enterprises of the last century, a claim supported by the deep penetration of Disney soundtracks into childhood memories almost since the soundtrack was invented. “We had a really big success with Piano Book, which reached a lot of people who were new to classical music after it was released in 2019,” Lang recalls. “So, we began thinking, ‘What can we do to help them take the next step?’ Of course, we could have done a Piano Book Two, but that was not going to make a tremendous difference. Then we began thinking about animation because it had played the biggest part of my life as a kid.” Animated characters, he adds, are not constrained by national boundaries or narrow cultural conventions. Above all, they satisfy every child’s need for fantasy. “Animation is this magical thing to kids. If you’re teaching and tell them about a real person, I think that’s less effective than using animation. It’s like a magnet that takes them into a magical world, which is real but also a fantasy. This is what kids love the most.” Lang Lang ran the gamut of cartoon soundtracks before finally settling on Disney. “We felt the album needed a theme. You cannot just jump around from Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, The Transformers, Japanese manga, and The Flintstones. I would say Disney films are probably about 90 percent of our childhood. That’s why we decided on a Disney theme. Musically speaking, I think Mary Poppins is the best. If you listen to all the film’s great tunes—‘Feed the Birds,’ ‘A Spoonful of Sugar,’ all those things—nothing beats them. I think they’re probably the best ever.” The Disney Book, released in time for the Walt Disney Company’s centenary year, covers a broad sweep of movie history and musical styles. Its tracklist stretches back to “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” from Three Little Pigs (1933) and “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio (1940) and embraces such contemporary hits as “Remember Me” from Coco (2017) and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Encanto (2021). There’s inevitably room for Elsa’s earworm ballad “Let It Go” from Frozen (2013) and the equally catchy “It’s a Small World” (1964), which Lang first heard as a 13-year-old visitor to Tokyo Disneyland. The combination of Lang Lang and Disney demanded and received extravagant musical arrangements. The pianist recalls learning from the experience of making his New York Rhapsody album, in which he often played second fiddle to the recording’s raft of vocalists. “This taught me a huge lesson,” he observes. “Sometimes you make mistakes, especially in a new area which you’ve never explored before. But for The Disney Book, I said to my team, ‘We need to find the best transcribers.’ People like Stephen Hough, Thomas Lauderdale, Natalie Tenenbaum from the Juilliard School of Music, David Hamilton—the best musicians who can make the most amazing arrangements. We built up this army of incredible piano transcribers and then worked really hard to make sure that this album was not going to be like ballroom music.” Any danger that the piano might fade into the background evaporated after Lang instructed his arrangers to hold in mind the keyboard transcriptions of Franz Liszt and Vladimir Horowitz. “We wanted those really virtuosic things for piano to be in it,” he notes. “And in ‘Baby Mine’ from Dumbo, we have something that sounds like Debussy! I wanted all the classical piano skills to shine in this recording.” The Disney Book, in both its standard version and extended Deluxe Edition, is packed with dazzling displays of pianism, some delivered in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, others as solo numbers or pieces recorded with a handful of guest artists including Andrea Bocelli, Miloš Karadaglić, Jon Batiste, the Chinese erhu player Guo Gan, and Lang’s wife, Gina Alice. “If I had to choose one Disney melody,” says Lang Lang, “it would have to be ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ That’s so symbolic. I originally asked Pharrell Williams to sing this. He freaked out! He’s like, ‘You can ask me to do something else. But this song, I’m afraid to sing it. Everybody knows the melody—it’s really hard to sing.’ It seemed like nobody wanted to do it. So, I asked Gina, ‘What do you think?’ She said, ‘Look, I’m a pianist, not a real singer. Let’s do it.’ And she sings it beautifully!” Stephen Hough, a virtuoso concert pianist in his own right, transcribed ‘Feed the Birds’ in the style of a Rachmaninoff prelude, while the spit-spot passagework and heavyweight technical challenges of Natalie Tenenbaum’s Mary Poppins Fantasy gave Lang Lang’s digits a serious workout. “Stephen did a really amazing job,” he says. “And Natalie’s great transcription is very hard to play. It really is like a combination of Liszt and Horowitz. My fingers got kind of a burn from playing it!”

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