Lang Lang’s Celebrity Series of Boston recital at Symphony Hall on March 1 was a reassuring reminder that the glorious tradition of virtuoso piano playing-the “Golden Age” of Liszt, Chopin, Thalberg, Moscheles and Rubinstein in the Romantic era, and of Horowitz, Hoffman, Lhevinne and Earl Wild in the 20th century-is alive and well today. Lang Lang has all the credentials that qualify him as a bona fide member of this exclusive club: a virtuoso technique, charisma to spare, and that something extra-the ability to create poetry and beautiful portraits with his fingers.
The first half was devoted to Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D. 959, one of his last three piano sonatas. Schubert’s compositions have a tendency to be quite long. Some people do not have the patience for this, while others love “Schubert’s heavenly length.” Lang Lang’s performance of this great work was “heavenly,” beautiful from the first note to the last. The pianist has a seemingly inexhaustible palette of colors at his disposal, a wide range of dynamics, and a rhetorical sense of drama and timing that could almost be put into words. He also played with intelligence. Like most “flashy” virtuosos, Lang Lang has sometimes been accused of being a mere empty-headed technician. The Schubert proved them wrong. His grasp of the structural and formal elements of this sonata, and the characters of each movement would have made a Ph.D. in Music Theory happy.
Bartók’s 1926 Piano Sonata, Sz. 80, opened the second half of the concert. Like his Allegro barbaro of 1911, Bartók’s piano sonata is a percussive and extroverted work, and Lang Lang played it in the style it demanded. He also read from the music for this piece. No problem. Liszt’s audiences didn’t seem to mind when he used music, as we shall see later, and neither did we.
The selections from the two books of Debussy’s Préludes that followed were played with a painterly hand. In La Cathédrale engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) one could actually see the cathedral of the lost city rise from its watery grave and sink again. The Feux d’artifice (Fireworks) were as colorful and exciting as those exploding over the Charles River on July 4th.
The concert closed with a work composed by a founding member of the “Golden Age Piano Club,” Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, op. 53 “Héroique.” The technical demands of this old, wonderful warhorse are formidable. There are rapid scales in octaves, massive chords, and arpeggios cascading up and down the full range of the keyboard (which in Chopin’s time spanned only 82 notes, from low C to high A). Lang Lang dispatched these with ease, and aplomb.
In 1874, the music critic Edward Hanslick described a recital by Franz Liszt: “Not only does one listen with breathless attention to his playing; one also observes its reflection in his face… his head thrown back… head, eyes and sometimes even a helping hand, maintain constant communication with… the audience. Sometimes he plays from notes, at other times from memory… all this has the utmost fascination for his listeners.” Hanslick could just as easily have been writing about Lang Lang.