A packed Symphony Hall heard the Celebrity Series of Boston’s presentation of Lang Lang in solo recital on Sunday. The Manchurian rock star of the classical music world provokes impassioned reactions: gushing adulation from his fans, and snide dismissiveness from purists. I have tended to side with the purists, looking down on his razzle-dazzle showmanship. Instead, I found myself confronting an enigmatic mix—at some times endowed with sensitive poetry, at others full of sound and fury. Lang may be a concatenation of showman, public relations master, poet, and idealist, yet there is no reason why a classical musician cannot be a master marketer, or dress to perform, or talk with an audience, or happily sign a program while accepting his adoring public.
The program set the stage for a conundrum. Lang began with Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, a set of 12 character pieces in ternary form. The Italian Concerto, BWV 971 of J. S. Bach preceded intermission, then the second half consisted of the four Scherzos of Chopin. A program with 16 out of 19 movements in ABA form made for a lot of repeated material, though it also provided for large-scale technical and emotional crescendos.
Lang’s physical presence was laden with idiosyncrasies. His suit was unorthodox—a tuxedo jacket and pants, and a collarless shirt that resembled a waistcoat. There are his physical mannerisms, hands flaring dramatically above the piano after a phrase-ending-chord, elbows bowing out into awkward horizontal L’s instead of the more conventional vertical ones, or fingers caressing the keyboard in slow, soft passages. He tossed his head backwards, Liszt-like, to convey poetic drama during poignant moments, or twisted his torso as he switched from a rising piano figure to a falling one. It’s charismatic, distinctive showmanship, but while the emphasis on the cult of Lang Lang fills a music hall, it distracts from his music making.
Tchaikovsky wrote The Seasons on commission from Nikolay Bernard for serial publication in Bernard’s monthly magazine Nuvellist, with each piece evoking the spirit of the month in which it was published (why it’s called The Seasons instead of The Months is mysterious to me). Each month has a title and a poetic epigram [details here], only two share key signatures, and they offer a range of shadings and moods within their brief ternary forms. For January (By the Hearth), Lang evoked a dying fire with a gentle ebbing and flowing tempo. February (The Carnival) brought a frenetic outburst, followed by a slow burn crescendo filled with crisp passagework. March (Song of the Lark) offered a deftly handled dialogue between the soprano and bass registers over a gently rocking alto/tenor figure, and nice elaborations in the repeat. April (Snowdrop) responded to “last tears over past griefs” with delicacy reminiscent of a Chopin Nocturne. May (White Nights) has a wandering, wayward melody over rolled chords, but ends of segments felt a little too drawn out, dragging ritardandos out until the line was lost. Lang’s rendition of the popular June (Barcarolle) struck me as too slow to lilt like a Venetian gondolier’s song. The middle segment’s syncopated figure did stand out smartly, and the contrapuntal elaborations in the reprise of the A section were clearly voiced.
July (Reaper’s Song) brought an earthly exuberance with ringing bagpipe fifths in the left hand and a surprising decrescendo to a hushed finish. August (The Harvest) describes “Music screeching all night from the hauling carts.” Lang’s playing was agitated in the A section without losing control, though he cranked up the pace in the repeat, sacrificing clarity of melody in the process. September (The Hunt) had a contrast of jaunty, spirited outer segment and calm, contemplative inner segment, though he deftly handled the intrusion of hunting music into middle section to guide the transition back to the reprise. October (Autumn Song) shifted towards sad songfulness, and in the repeat, the alto voice commented tellingly on the soprano tune. The playing of the reprise was gorgeously hushed, though the ending slowed until the phrases disintegrated. November (On the Troika) was one of the more successful performances in the cycle, with a brisk middle section evoking the brio of a sleigh ride, and the reprise offering a gossamer high-register decoration to the main theme, clear and bright even at the quietest of dynamics. December (Christmas-Tide) was a spirited waltz, given strange twists of tempo though the final flourish brought some to their feet.
In J. S. Bach’s solo keyboard Concerto nach Italianischem Gusto (Concerto in the Italian Style) the composer drew from his experience arranging string concertos by Vivaldi and Ernst for solo organ, to create an original work in three movements which allows a two-keyboard harpsichord evoke the sound world of the string concerto grosso. No matter whether on historically informed harpsichords and modern pianofortes, the challenge for the player is those long contrapuntal lines that are easy to realize on strings, and hard to achieve on a percussion instrument. Lang opened with a Glenn Gould-like crystalline clarity of left and right hands, crisply articulated at restrained dynamics. The middle movement called forth the sound of a voice or violin aria, stretching tempos organically this way and that to lend an improvisatory feel, and the alternation of middle voices and bass line felt firmly connected, giving arch and shape to the whole movement. The final movement offered a chance for Lang to show off his impressive finger speed, but the counterpoint remained clear, with the tune always audible and well supported, a wider range of dynamic shapes than a harpsichord can provide, and a surprising decrescendo towards a gorgeously hushed ending. To my ears, this was the most successful performance of the afternoon, and a delightful surprise.
“Scherzo,” from the Italian meaning “joke,” was first applied by Beethoven to a ternary movement, usually the second or third movement of a four movement sonata-form structure. It used Beethoven’s characteristic contrasts of loud and soft and abrupt key changes to add a rough humor to the more courtly minuets of Haydn and Mozart. Chopin used “Scherzo” to label four stand-alone compositions, written over eight years, much larger in scale than most of his solo piano works. These pieces are not funny, but preserve sharp contrasts of mood, key, and dynamic, and serve as a vehicle for high-octane pianistic derring-do. The pianists who recorded or performed the Scherzos are a who’s who of 20th-century legends—Godowsky, Rachmaninov, Hofmann, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Richter, Argerich, Kissin, just to name a few. Such repertoire would seem to be perfect for a showman like Lang Lang, but these four works brought out the worst alongside the best in his piano playing.
It struck me as odd that the first long chord of Scherzo No. 1 was played softly, and followed by a much louder second chord, but that choice made beautiful sense when it was repeated in the transition from the quieter middle section back to the reprise of the outer segment. Unfortunately, the torrents of rising figures that follow those first two chords were so blazingly fast that the phrases collapsed into a muddy haze. It then slowed to a glacial pace for a brooding bass figure before the torrents started again. You could call these tempo contortions mercurial and whimsical, but even as tempestuous a pianist as Argerich sustains the melodic line more successfully than Lang, and Richter could play hypnotically slowly without losing that rock-solid sense of place and direction. There was impressive dynamic gradation, and the middle segment’s softer, gentler dynamic made for some hushed poetry, but that poetry was obliterated under the kind of blisteringly murky coda that has earned this pianist the unfortunate nickname of “Bang Bang.”
A rash of applause separated the first two scherzos, and the rapid-fire shifts in dynamics and mood of the outer section of Scherzo No. 2 drew a more nuanced performance, even one segment near the end where the momentum seemed to gather gradually and organically. The preceding Tchaikovsky and Bach prepared the ear for beautifully separated four-part counterpoint in the slower middle section, and the transition to the reprise drew out the suspense, but another unfocused high-velocity fusillade drew the scherzo to its close and the audience to its feet.
Lang stepped briefly off stage before emerging again for Scherzo No. 3. This was the finest performance among the scherzos, with the opening theme in four octaves played impossibly fast yet bracingly clean. Rachmaninov is the only pianist I can find who comes close in speed, but even Rachmaninov flubbed the runs where Lang’s playing stayed immaculate. The descending cascades of notes in the quieter middle segment were also played quickly and cleanly. The reprise was fast, the coda faster, teetering on the edge of losing control of the line but holding on just long enough. He then launched directly into Scherzo No. 4, the only major key piece in the group. This work opens with an alternation of slow figures laden with portent and fleeter, faster passages that dance up and down the keyboard. Better than anybody I’ve heard, Lang makes something interesting of the bass responses to these soprano-voice flights of whimsy. Some of the elaborated commentaries were played with a droll timing reminiscent of similar interjections in Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, an effect that gets as close to funny as it gets in these Scherzos. The middle section had the kind of gentle lilt that I wanted in Tchaikovsky’s June, though the reprise was played so fast that the bass octave trills swallowed up everything in their path. Still, after a big, rattling buildup, Lang slowed down and pulled back with impressive control for a coda that mostly worked well, and drew a thunderous standing ovation from the audience.
After several waves and a bouquet of flowers, Lang picked up a microphone and thanked the crowd, acknowledged Symphony Hall’s superb acoustics, and announced his first encore, Mexican composer Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo No.1 (1909). The parallel-third melody danced with melancholic grace, and the middle-voice elaborations had that same contrapuntal clarity, though a more dramatic central section gave room for more high-speed blurring. This was followed by “¡Y la negra bailaba!” a “Cuban dance” by Ernesto Lecunoa, in honor of Lang’s first visit to Havana two weeks ago. It had a rollicking dance rhythm in the left hand, and a sassy, syncopated melody in the right, bringing the program to an uproarious close.
I have a hard time deciding what to make of this recital. Other BMInt reviews of Lang Lang don’t help; his idiosyncratic playing style polarizes listeners. I can’t find a parallel in the master pianists of my memory; Argerich sometimes attacked the keys too aggressively for my taste, the old masters could bend and twist the line, and Pogorelich and Gould offered deliberately perverse interpretations, but none of them stretch the line to the point of breaking, and few have Lang’s pure blazing speed. This program suggests a conflict between the sensitive, thoughtful musician and the flamboyant showman.
Lang Lang proceeds to Washington to play the Grieg Piano Concerto with the National Symphony. The Celebrity Series moves on to the realm of the cerebral, with Gil Shaham presenting the six Sonatas and Partitas of J.S. Bach at Sanders Theater on Sunday, November 1st.