Amid the flash and effects, Lang Lang offers artistic depth

February 05, 2014 at 1:17 pm
Lang Lang performed music of Mozart and Chopin Tuesday at Carnegie Hall.

Lang Lang performed music of Mozart and Chopin Tuesday at Carnegie Hall.

Lang Lang was certainly himself on Tuesday. He brought with him all of his usual mannerisms and chuckle-inducing physical gestures, from the pontifical to the Liberacical.

And yet his latest Carnegie Hall recital was different from the sort of showy “experience” for which critics have loved to bash Lang in the past (It was just last weekend that he joined Metallica for a pyrotechnic presentation at the Grammys.) He was not greeted Tuesday with his accustomed salvo of camera flashes—the audience approached this recital as a serious artistic offering, and so did he.

That’s not to say that there weren’t examples of Lang’s customary pianistic pitfalls— particularly in the three Mozart sonatas that made up the first half of his program. Most audibly glaring was a homogeneity of touch. He seemed to have only two ways of striking the keys—one that was gentle and floated the sound out of the piano, and one that felt like a poke in the eye. In between there was little variation, limiting his ability to play with color.

Still, he showed a good deal of maturity with some very sensitive playing in the Fifth Sonata, K.283, with which he opened. He was playful not just in his physical demeanor, but in his musicality, as well. As complete presentations, though, these sonatas were uneven. The two menuets of the Fourth, K.282, were charming enough, but the first movement was not fully considered—there were moments that seemed to have been given extra attention, extra love, and others that were played matter-of-factly, as though they needed to be traversed in order to get to his next “highlight.”

That sense of disjointedness was a problem in all three of the sonatas, but nowhere more than in the Eighth, K.310. The first movement was directionless due to a lack of continuity. There were many fine and well-thought out gestures, but no sense of cohesion—It was as though Lang had discovered a number of ideas that sounded interesting on their own, and then tried to string them all together. The last movement, too, lacked a feeling of forward momentum.

In this regard, he seemed an entirely different pianist in the four Chopin Ballades. As expected, he came hot out of the intermission, diving into the first Ballade with characteristic fury. This did hinder him at times—he seems to have a tendency to do what feels right physically, without listening to himself as carefully as he should. The result was often a loss of balance, a soupy composition that obscured details, as in the Second.

The Third was mostly effective, with a sense of story that wove throughout, but was marred by rushing through some of the runs. It was in the Fourth Ballade that Lang really found his element and demonstrated an artistry that goes beyond mere showmanship.

The Fourth had everything the Mozart had largely been missing: color, subtlety and variety of touch, and—even though he took the opening theme much slower than many others have done—clarity and urgency of purpose. Moreover, the Fourth Ballade really was a ballade—there was a continuous narrative, an arc that, in spite of some very generous rubato, was uninterrupted.

It wouldn’t be a Lang Lang recital without encores, and his first, Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo, was as searching as the opening of the Fourth Ballade had been. Then, after teasing the audience by moving coyly toward the bench several times as he took his bows, he wished everyone a happy Chinese New Year, and proceeded to play what he announced as the Chinese Spring Festival Overture (arranged by Yibo Yang), a playful and bubbling romp.


4 Responses to “Amid the flash and effects, Lang Lang offers artistic depth”

  1. Posted Feb 06, 2014 at 12:38 am by Wei Shen

    Eric,
    Making music is a creative process, not science. His playing and interpretation of classical music have exhilarated contemporary audience around the world. To certain extent, LL’s unique artistry has contributed to the very revival of classical music which has been on the verge of extinction from this planet. I often wonder how Mozart or Chopin would comment on criticism given by critics like you if they had crawled back from their graves. I would be very curious to find out from you who in your mind could play such masterpieces with the precision and demeanor you were prescribing. I ran into a well-known music professor who was even more critical of LL about his unique gesture and playing. But my problem was I felt extremely bored and unimpressed by his playing and elite interpretation while attending his recital. I guess I had to go with my emotions and feelings, not theories… In the end, a good artist is someone who could connect with the souls of his/her audience, not merely delivers what he/she had memorized from the text books. Just my 2cents.

  2. Posted Apr 10, 2014 at 10:10 pm by Abel

    I think Lang Lang is a 21st century product. We have all been listening to ‘old’ interpretations – those that, for the past 100 years, witnessed the two World Wars, the Communist regimes, the Cold War, the Cultural Revolution…
    What we have now before us are 21st century musicians – Gustavo Dudamel, Lang Lang, Yuja Wang…
    Needless to way, they are different from Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan, Willhelm Kempf, Sviastoslav Richter, …
    In criticsing against Lang Lang’s interpretations, it is just the same as bashing out against Yuja Wang’s funky concert attire.
    I think it is much more constructive to accept these youngsters AS THEY ARE and enjoy their performances, rather than inccessantly COMPARING them with past greats.
    Afterall, we cannot drag the past greats back from their graves, can we?

  3. Posted Apr 26, 2014 at 8:08 pm by Daniel Loftin

    A very perceptive critique of a controversial, yet promising pianist. My hope is that Lang Lang will continue to work and grow to fulfill the promise he has shown heretofore. He seems to be on a good course, and show signs of developing real maturity as an artist.

  4. Posted Jul 27, 2014 at 12:47 pm by Paul Kostoff

    I can’t help but compare LL to the great pianists of the 20th century. He simply doesn’t measure up in my opinion. Theatricality isn’t a suitable replacement for musicality and a sense of what one is playing. The author of this article said it best, in that LL has two ways of striking the keys. Forte and fortissimo. There is little nuance. I am in total support of artistic expression, and this isn’t to say that 21st century pianists must simply rehash the playing styles of 20th century pianists. I silly have never heard a LL interpretation that was fulfilling in the least.

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