Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lang Lang at the LA Phil

Lang Lang at Walt Disney Hall

Last Sunday night I had the pleasure of seeing the internationally renowned concert pianist Lang Lang give a recital in Los Angeles. Lang Lang has shot to fame since his 2001 Carnegie Hall debut, with reviews praising his showmanship and technical mastery of the keyboard. As his career progresses, it is interesting to see what and how he plays to live up to the hype and the expectations of his audience, many of whom are, it could be said, eager for a display of acrobatics. Lang Lang is certainly not the first virtuoso musician to be type-cast in this way, and I was interested to see whether he might try to subtly subvert or lampoon his own unique style. Unfortunately, subtlety is not generally considered one of Lang Lang's selling points.

He served up a balanced program consisting of Bach Partita No. 1 in B-flat (BWV 825) followed by a late Schubert Sonata, also in B-flat (D 960). Both are pieces renowned more for musical than technical difficulty, and Lang Lang approached both according to his by now familiar formula of "no rubato left unplayed". While I'd be the last person to criticise a performer for reinterpreting older music with more modern innovations, Lang Lang did not express the polyphonic texture of the Bach particularly well, leaving us with a notationally accurate but sometimes bland and often confounding performance. Indeed, were it not for the applause from the more alert ends of the auditorium, I would have had difficulty telling the end of the Bach from the beginning of the Schubert, despite the intervening centuries of musical development, thought, and stylistic difference between them. Displaying a level of proficiency performing music at a level he must have mastered nearly two decades ago, Lang Lang nevertheless delivered a piece whose cohesion, unity and flow was broken by occasional but seemingly arbitrary pauses in tempo, intrusive fortissimo chords, or other "pops".

Thus far most of the audience, where still awake, seemed confused. Where were the technical fireworks? This was, after all, the performer sometimes dubbed the "greatest living pianist" who can "play anything". Someone with his reputation could certainly afford to dish up some tasty and technically terrifying tidbit from the edges of the repertoire. Thus far, with Bach and Schubert we had travelled down the dead center of the road of western musical thought. When one sees a virtuoso perform there is an expectation that they will play easy stuff well, and that they will also select some repertoire they find challenging. Georges Cziffra, a Hungarian pianist well known in Europe in the 60s and 70s, was famed for driving audiences into a frenzy with edge-of-your-seat fear and excitement over his interpretations and arrangements of, in particular, Liszt. A pianist must perform at least some music with which they physically and viscerally contend. Without the possibility of a spectacular melt-down there can be no suspense and no excitement, at least since Steinway worked out how to prevent pianos from exploding beneath the demands of the Romantic repertoire.

The second part of the recital promised the desired technical showmanship in the form of the Chopin Etudes Op. 25. Billed as Chopin's "ultra-demanding pianistic studies", they were, at the time of their composition, possibly the fourth most challenging etudes in existence. They are certainly nowhere near Liszt's contemporaneous Transcendental Etudes in musical, technical, and pianistic complexity. Indeed, Liszt went on to republish easier and more accessible versions of his etudes not once but twice, and even then they are by no means the most challenging works in his ouvre. Additionally, there has been considerable development in the nearly two centuries since. In my opinion, the etudes composed by Godowsky, Sorabji, Finnissy, Busoni, and Marc-Andre Hamelin are, while often directly referencing Chopin's earlier work, much more interesting and certainly far more challenging.

This is not to take away from Chopin's Op. 25, whose technical challenges alternately bemuse and infuriate aspiring professional pianists in nearly every music school on earth. Again presenting a work that he must have mastered at half his present age, Lang Lang delivered solid performances of the 12 studies, though we got a few fistfulls of bonus notes in the seventh. Towards the end he anticipated premature applause and played one almost right after another, often ending with a flourish or musical joke obvious enough for most of the audience to get.

In between half a dozen curtain calls, he performed two encores: Liszt's Romanza and La Campanella. The former was most likely for the people sitting to the right of the podium who have a strong appreciation for his legendary emotional state while playing, while the latter is an old encore favourite amongst pianists. La Campanella was originally written as a musical joke, but due to its technical difficulty is almost always played "with a straight face". Lang Lang took the opportunity to play his own cadenza drawn largely from other Liszt works (including an extended melodic inversion from Liszt's transcription of Danse Macabre) which included at least one laugh at the serious faction of the audience's expense. At last! Thus it seems that Lang Lang is very aware that certain repertoire and tricks sell tickets, records and sponsorship deals, and is, perhaps, musically trapped. The question, then, is at what point will he decide he is rich enough, throw off the shackles of living up to his possibly undeserved reputation and turn his unique style and voice to more unexpected repertoire? Perhaps he could emulate Stephen Hough, who occasionally sneaks Godowsky billed as Chopin upon an unsuspecting audience. Who knows, perhaps one day he will bring a new audience to the most recent century of piano composition.

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