Lang Lang, Piano; Orpheum, January 21, 2011

Works by Beethoven, Albeniz and Prokofiev

These days, any concert by Lang Lang is a truly public event, attracting both music lovers and non-musicians alike, all in celebration of this symbol of emerging markets success.  In this Vancouver Recital Society presentation, the Orpheum was sold-out, the pianist entered with arms stretched high to receive his following, and the ‘spell’ of Lang Lang was in place.  

It must be exhausting for this pianist to fly around the world week after week as both a cultural icon and a concert pianist.  After selling out Davies Hall in San Francisco the night before, Lang Lang perhaps did not have that much left in the tank for this concert.  Most of his playing tended to be rather workmanlike, only infrequently generating the involvement and ‘white heat’ that the audience likely expected.

The two Beethoven Sonatas, the early Op. 2 and the ‘Appassionata’, Op. 57, featured some elegant phrasing and tonal control but often lacked the structural unity and toughness normally associated with this composer.  Part of this is Lang Lang’s long-standing tendency either to operate at the extreme of fast and brilliant, or instead to cocoon himself in a  romantic ‘haze’ of  quiet, lingering half tones, without too much in between.  This can easily be a recipe for fragmented exposition in the outer movements, but the problem was actually not too severe.  Here one touchstone of romantic expression seemed to be finding ‘Moonlight Sonata’ chording in the slow movements of both works, and to extend their full feeling to almost Brahmsian dimensions.  Don’t worry: the youthful Daniel Barenboim used to do the same thing! 

If the Op. 2 sonata received a conscientious, but somewhat soft-centered reading, the Appassionata had relatively little fire in it.  Starting sedately, with a slightly-awkward presentation of the initial theme, it did not move forward with much real intensity. The Theme and Variations were articulate but too deliberate, and the fixation with maintaining an exact rhythmic flow in the finale, while interesting, certainly worked against producing any semblance of a ‘blazing’ Appassionata.  

The three pieces from Albeniz’ Iberia offered the best playing of the night: beautifully-crafted, only lacking the last ounce of Spanish sensuality.  The closing Prokofiev Sonata No. 7 is a magnificent tour de force, championed by Horowitz, Richter, and Pollini.  It should have been likewise in Lang Lang’s hands but I think he just wanted to get through the piece.  The first and last movements were driven hard enough that their structural foundations were sort of lost, while the pianist did not expand fully enough into the bittersweet expression of the lyrical episodes.

No one doubts Lang Lang’s immense technical facility and overall pianistic potential.  One step forward in this concert is that the pianist often substituted refinement for the more vulgar ‘Bang Bang’ of previous years.  Still the performances overall were not very distinctive.  A continuing concern is the predictable similarity of Lang Lang’s response to the emotional core of different works.  Especially in slower, quieter music, he seems to respond uniformly with the same ‘off the rack’ romantic sentiment and tonal shading, rather than isolating each composer’s unique world of expression.  As well, he often takes the easy route to articulating works  -- by substituting pianistic ‘effects’ for genuine musical thought.  This is why his performances can sometimes seem to be more a disjoint set of (beautiful) effects or moods than a continuous flow of musical ideas. 

Of course, Lang Lang is still young and if he ever gets a sabbatical from it all, he can work to put these remnants of juvenilia to rest.  At that point, his contribution to musical insight may come closer to matching his contribution to world economic prosperity.  


 © Geoffrey Newman 2011