Lang Lang is certainly the most mediatic pianist in the world. As you read the biography in the hand programme, you find precious little about music, but plenty of kudos about his influence; and he´s only 32. He played at the 2008 Beijing Olympics for four thousand million people; he collaborated with pop dancer Marquese "Nonstop" Scott, Julio Iglesias and Herbie Hancock. He is a Messenger for Peace of the United Nations and he has his own Lang Lang International Music Foundation with stress on giving children access to good music through education. Steinway even designed the Lang Lang piano for China.
He is a staple in presentations before Presidents and is chosen for commemorative concerts such as the one for Queen Elizabeth II´s Diamond Jubilee at Buckingham Palace. He was one of the Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum (a musician!). But no mention is made about his training or his recordings or his early appearances.
Lang Lang has been coming regularly during the last decade, so he seems to find the Colón attractive. In this recital of the Abono Verde (Green Subscription Series) the audience was quite varied, for apart from music lovers you had the mediatic seekers. The premices were full and increasingly enthusiastic; by the time the encores were played, the response was almost delirious; and he, as the showman he also is, saluted with charm and signed programmes. It helps that he is personable and very cordial.
Now to the music. Lang Lang is realistic and he only squeezes small Chinese pieces in the encores. I have often wondered about the Oriental capacity to adapt to the Occidental world, for it doesn´t work the other way around. From this artist´s teens critics have recognised his amazing dexterity with something of the acrobatic mixed in; well, the best acrobats are Chinese. Apparently he can play faultlessly anything written for the piano, no matter how difficult. That´s the dazzling side, always present.
But of course style matters and the success of the interpretation depends on it. In the same piece with Lang Lang you can hear a beguiling passage and seconds later a distorted view of the score, though note-perfect. That has been so in every visit, and there´s no sign that the problem will disappear. Nevertheless, the experience of hearing him is always interesting and worthwhile, and a good many minutes will be of very high rank.
His recitals have always brought different programmes and sometimes his choices were intriguing. E.g., being such a virtuoso, why choose an easy Mozart sonata? He can also bring over some beautiful music very rarely heard, as he did this time with Tchaikovsky´s "The seasons". And he can disconcert playing it before, not after, Johann Sebastian Bach´s "Italian Concerto".
"The seasons" is a misnomer for what should be called "The months". It was the result of monthly pieces written for a Saint Petersburg music magazine, afterwards edited by Jurgenson as Op.37a (Op.37 is the Great Piano Sonata in G). Beginning of course in January, an intimate piece called "Close to the chimney", each month has different character and title, sometimes brilliant and fast ("Carnival", "The Hunt") but more frequently melodic in the inimitable tchaikovskian way ("Barcarolle", "The lark´s song"). The last two are November ("Troika") and December ("The salon waltz").
In my long years of concert going I had never heard the whole suite in one concert, and Lang Lang is to be thanked for this discovery, though of course there are recordings (Ashkenazy, Bronfman, Pletnev; Ilona Prunyi plays them very nicely). Exciting but exaggerated in the fast ones, Lang Lang showed the subtility of his touch in the melodies, molded delicately and phrased with taste. His memory always seems excellent, you never see or hear a hesitation; you may disagree with some of his decisions, but he never improvises: he is sure of himself at all times.
Bach´s marvelous Italian Concerto (called thus although written for one instrument) is of course a staple of the repertoire of harpsichordists (preferable) and pianists. Lang Lang uses the full resources of the modern piano but he doesn´t abuse the pedals and he has the sort of total independence of hands needed to keep the constant counterpoint clear. So, although slightly fast, he kept a steady rhythmic pulse.
The four Chopin Scherzi are among his most important creations, wholly his in conception and technique, and equally mature from op.20 to Op.54. They all have a main Presto and a contrasting slow, moody melody. They can be played quite fast but not willfully, such as Orozco, Argerich or Rubinstein did; but Lang Lang suddenly sprints off when he resumes the Presto material at a double-fast clip not asked for by the composer, and the balance deteriorates. The perfection of the playing survives, but not the spirit. However, how lovely and contained were the quiet moments.
In two of the encores he was at his worst: a wild, brutal "Fire Dance" from Falla´s "Love the Magician" ("El Amor Brujo") and a disheveled "Danza cubana" by Lecuona.(Listen respectively to Rubinstein and the author to know how they should sound). And in the middle, an inocuous slow Chinese melody, nicely done.
Will he change in the future? I bet he won´t. He will remain fascinating and irritating. He likes things his way and that´s that.
For Buenos Aires Herald