Amid the flash and effects, Lang Lang offers artistic depth
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.
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