October 27, 2016
Monday, June 23, 2014

Pyrotechnics and ‘alternative interpretation’

Lang Lang waves at the audience during his concert at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.
By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald

From the start, matters went stylistically awry, although Lang Lang’s fingers always struck the right keys

Dazzling, amazing, flashy, arbitrary, showy, polemic: all these adjectives apply to 32-year-old Chinese pianist Lang Lang. Most media and the Colón hand programme say that this is his second visit, mentioning as the first the recital he offered at the Abono del Bicentenario in 2012, but prior to that date, I believe he came quite young to play the Tchaikovsky First Concerto; however, as I lack an archive I can’t confirm it.

In 2012 he was strongly questioned by music critics, me among them. The public, instead, applauded wildly. This time I was appalled at the immense difference between fantastic dexterity and inappropriate interpretation I felt throughout. But 90 percent of the audience again applauded enthusiastically.

Two facts: a) exactly the same programme was played two days before at a closed concert of the ICBC (the Chinese bank) for its invited guests. b) there was a mishap during the first part: as the pianist played the final pages of the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata Nº8, a key went mute: one string had failed. The artist, unfazed, announced an intermission to fix the matter, and the Colón specialist, Quintieri, came in and fixed it. After the interval, Lang Lang continued with the second and third movements. I felt he should have made the effort to play the first movement whole once again, to keep the continuity of the score.

As you know, a bad decision of the Colón authorities forces people to pay 50 pesos for the hand programme we used to have for a tip (an ultraslim one can be had, in effect, for a tip). But if you paid for the “big” one, you could see three photographs of Lang Lang in similar spectacular, expressionistic gestures. And such was his playing. I have a hunch that he is convinced that his interpretations are right. I can only say that several people had the same impression I had of an artist completely off course, wasting natural, immense talent.

He is, of course, a media darling, the object of extraordinary homages, and not only in his native China, where he is credited for the expansion of classical music among the very young (he was a child prodigy). He will continue to be invited to inaugurate stadiums, play at the Olympics, etc. But connoisseurs of pianism will still be profoundly bothered by his wilful distortion of great musical scores, even as they envy his fantastic mechanism.

When I saw that he would play three Mozart sonatas in the First Part, I was flabbergasted, for their musical language didn’t seem to agree with the image I had of Lang Lang; for me Mozart is represented by Ushida, Barenboim, Schiff... I was even more surprised that two of the chosen sonatas are easy ones that I had studied myself. And there’s only one right approach, that of pure Classicism. From the very start, matters went stylistically awry, although the fingers always struck the right keys.

Some examples: 1) slow speeds were much slower, fast speeds much faster; 2) dynamics were exaggerated, extremely delicate “pianissimi” followed by Romantic “fortissimi”; 3) repeats were erratically observed, even going against the form (he didn’t do the repeats in the First Minuet of Sonata Nº4); 4) ornaments were often out of style; and 5) the vexed question of “rubati” applied sentimentally with no concern for the proper molding of phrases (in “rubato” you “rob” some time to add it to a particular note or figuration; in the Classic period basically you apply it to moments of harmonic resolution or repose but never in the middle of a phrase as he did). He played Sonatas Nos. 5, 4 and 8; the latter is in the minor and the most dramatic and advanced of the early sonatas: it certainly can take a stronger approach than the others but compare Lipatti with Lang Lang and you will hear the difference between a stylist and a player.

Theoretically the four Chopin Ballads (masterpieces of Romanticism) can accept much more leeway than Mozart, but not in such absurd degree as in some passages. The best thing about Lang Lang, apart from his uncanny precision in always striking the noted keys, is his sensibility for timbre, for indeed he is capable of beautiful and ethereal sounds and of powerful chords, and he always plays fair in articulating every single key, no matter the speed. But in the fast parts of all four Ballads we were taken on hectic rides that obliterated any possibility of appreciating the details of the writing (think of images passed so fast that you can’t discern them). The hands flied and I was marvelled as I can be at the Cirque du Soleil, but I don’t go to a piano recital to have that kind of feeling. And the sad thing was that in some sections he calmed down and played true Chopin; so he can...

He played two encores; the first a slow melody with nice harmonies that I couldn’t place; the second, Chopin’s Waltz Nº 1, unfortunately mauled by the pianist to a painful degree.

There has been a distinct involution since his earlier recital (Bach, Chopin and Schubert): he was much more wilful this time. Thus does he have the self-criticism and humility to hear responsible advice and modify his ways? Honestly, I rather doubt it. But I do hope he will.

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