Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist, is almost forty years old (thirty-nine). That means, people have been fighting the Lang Lang wars for twenty years. Some love him; some loathe him. Few are in between, it seems to me.
I don’t think there’s a musician I’ve reviewed more frequently in the last twenty years (other than conductors who are institutional fixtures). I’ve heard the good, the bad, and the ugly. No, the great, the good, and on downward.
In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better performance of a Mozart concerto than one I heard from Lang Lang at the Salzburg Festival many years ago. The men of the Vienna Philharmonic put down their instruments and clapped for him. They did not tap their bows or their feet. No, they put down their instruments and clapped.
I had never seen these guys do that before, and I have not seen them do it since.
Then, Lang Lang played an encore—a movement from a Mozart sonata—that was not very good. Maybe he had needed the discipline of Pierre Boulez (the conductor of the concerto)?
Once, I walked out of a Lang Lang performance—saying why in an article afterward.
In any event, I feel myself being drawn into the Lang Lang wars, and don’t want to be. I am willing to take each performance as they come. I am always interested, or usually interested, in what he will do. And we don’t have a gun to our head. No one is required to attend a Lang Lang performance—it’s entirely voluntary.
Last night, Lang Lang played a recital in Carnegie Hall, and it featured the Goldberg Variations of Bach. The program began with Schumann’s Arabesque. Why? Does anything need to be paired with the Goldbergs? The Arabesque is only about seven minutes long. Why bother?
Or, if you’re going to play something in addition to the Goldbergs, why not a genuine first half? Not just a token prelude? In his famous Salzburg recital of 1959, Glenn Gould played a Sweelinck fantasy, a Schoenberg suite, a Mozart sonata—and then the Goldbergs.
At any rate, Lang Lang opened his recital with the Arabesque. The piece started like liquid—I have no other way of describing this beginning. Lang Lang oozed into this piece. His playing was so beautiful—amazingly beautiful. He was singing a song. You had no sense of hammers moving up and down. Was this guy really playing a percussion instrument?
Lang Lang is the master of the piano—note the italics. The master of soft playing. Just when you think he can’t “get under” a note—play the next note more softly than the present one—he does. (I heard Horowitz do this, too.) Moreover, the sound carries. It is not a dead sound, this piano. It moves, or sings, throughout the hall.
Despite this insanely beautiful playing, the Arabesque was simply too eccentric for me. There was too much rubato (license with time), too much messing around, too much recomposition. Still, I’m glad I heard this account (sort of). Lang Lang is like a jazzman. He would never play a piece the same way twice, and he lives for the spur of the moment.
Now to the Goldberg Variations—this summit of the keyboard, this summit of music. I will generalize, for a few paragraphs. I barely have the words for what Lang Lang did. “You had to be there” is the ultimate cop-out, certainly for a music critic. But . . .
I will try.
It was beautiful—impossibly beautiful. It was deft—impossibly deft. Lang Lang demonstrated stunning control. In his later years, Sam Snead, the golf champion, said, “In my prime, I could do whatever I wanted with my golf ball.” Lang Lang can do whatever he wants with a piano. I have said many, many times, “Lang Lang never plays badly. Never. It’s just that he sometimes thinks badly. His fingers can do whatever his mind commands, with ease.”
In the Goldbergs, Lang Lang sometimes added notes. He sometimes over-ornamented. He blurred notes with his pedal, creating dissonances. Some variations were like scherzos—fleet, playful, and fun. At one point, the audience giggled, naturally and appreciatively. Some variations were like sad songs. A fugal variation displayed unbelievable marcato and verve. In other variations, tempo and rhythm—and patience—were stretched to the limit.
I could go on and on. This question occurred to me: “What would Bach think?” I can’t speak for him, but—oh, who’m I kidding: I actually think I can: I think Bach would have been amazed, fascinated, appalled, impressed—perhaps a little confused . . .
We say that someone plays the piano (or another instrument). Think of that word “play.” You might think of children and toys. Lang Lang really does play, and play with. In his hands, the piano is a grown-up toy. I don’t mean this as an insult. Perhaps the rest of us could stand to do more “playing.”
Do I want everyone to play the Goldberg Variations as Lang Lang does? Oh, no. If I could take one recording of the Goldbergs to a desert island, would I take Lang Lang’s? Oh, no. Am I glad that Lang Lang exists and that this one person plays the Goldbergs the way he does? Yes.
The talent that this fellow has—even when you want to kill him—is mind-boggling.
A word about the audience: There was disturbance all evening. Everyone wanted to take pictures and record videos. The ushers would march up and down the aisles, policing. This is hardly conducive to a concert atmosphere. Also, a lot of people left during the Goldbergs (which are long, granted). They left even during the final aria—the repetition of the aria at the close (which was sublime).
Lang Lang played two encores (unless I’m blanking on another one): Für Elise and an arrangement of the “Jasmine Song,” the Chinese melody employed by Puccini in Turandot, a run of which opened at the Metropolitan Opera that very night—last night. Lang Lang played these pieces with stunning imagination, stunning fingers.
The showmanship is a little gross—sometimes a lot gross. Nevertheless . . .