I was privileged to attend Lang Lang's piano recital at Carnegie Hall last night. This was an exhilarating event, because Lang Lang is an exciting pianist, a technical wonder, a poetic master… Even though one might disagree with this or that aspect of a particular interpretation, there can be no doubt that the man is a formidable artist, always worth hearing.
The program consisted of Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 1 in Bb, BWV 825, Franz Schubert's Piano Sonata in Bb, D. 960, and Chopin's Twelve Etudes, Op. 25, with two short works by Franz Liszt as encores.
Lang Lang is not a historical purist. His strength is the core 19th century Romantic piano repertory, and he plays Bach as if Bach was a member of that 19th century Romantic piano school. Forget about terraced dynamics. Forget about imitating the sound of a harpsichord or a clavichord. Lang Lang is playing a Steinway concert grand, and although he may scale back the sound at times in all other respects he takes the music as he finds it and transmutes it into the musical story he seeks to tell. The opening Prelude in the Bach was a romantic tone poem, and worked beautifully as such. The ensuing dance movements did touch base at times with their formal dance origins, but I doubt people could have danced with any ease to them, since Lang Lang played freely with rhythms in the best mid-19th century tradition. His range of dynamics was immediately striking, with quite playing remarkable for its subtlety. Only the final Gigue movement let me down as being a bit more plain-faced than I had expected in light of what came before.
The Schubert performance was sublime. Lang Lang construed the first movement's "Molto Moderato" tempo a bit more flowingly than some have done, but the huge first movement was submitted to the romantic tone-poem treatment and emerged well from the process. The Andante sostenuto, also flowing smoothly, emphasized the songlike qualities of the music. The scherzo and finale were fleet but carefully inflected. It was especially clear in these two movements how much Lang Lang was enjoying the sheer pleasure of these pieces.
After intermission came the virtuoso challenge: a run through the complete Op. 25 Etudes of Chopin. The technical challenges of these pieces are so extraordinary that they reportedly intimidated Artur Rubinstein, perhaps the greatest of 20th century Chopin interpreters, who managed to record almost the entire works of this composer twice over, but fought shy of the Etudes. (I have an extensive Rubinstein recordings collection, but only a handful of the Chopin Etudes, taken down as encores at concert broadcasts, and those from the earlier Op. 10.) Lang Lang take everything in strike, and again clearly projects through his body language and facial expressions the fun he is having at cruising through some of the greatest technical challenges.
Of course lots of hype surrounds Lang Lang, who is among China's greatest exports to the outside world and an exalted role model and inspiration for thousands of Chinese children earnestly studying the piano. Judging by this recital and his recent Liszt recording, the hype is well earned. The man is developing nicely into a very mature musician, using his extraordinary technique to create memorable musical experiences for his listeners. I sometimes complain about conservative concert programming – and this recital is about as conservative as you can get, as the program could have been performed before the middle of the 19th century, judging by dates of composition and publication – but this pianist knows his strength and plays to it quite well. On the other hand, I would love to hear what he could do in Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.