This was my third experience with the layered pianism of Larry Weng, who recitaled Friday evening at NEC’s Burnes Hall in the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts summer series. Last summer’s offering was on the tense side, while the year before he demonstrated a rich and full musical mind translating into touch and interpretation. This year’s gratified likewise, though not everyone.
Weng opened with a Bach transcription sampler plate in the Grandest Style, more momentous Solomon than light Lipatti. Hess’s Jesu, Kempff’s Siciliano, Busoni’s Wachet Auf, all received great gravity and burl of tone. With Weng’s playing it sometimes feels like peering into one of those blue holes in the US, discerning layers and details, and then more. Only the Busoni S.734 Nun freut euch failed, being crazier-faster than usual, preposterous to the point of offense as some racecar loony tune. (One wonders how this came into being, with even the more refined versions, Horowitz to Jacobs, hardly avoiding cartoonishenss.)
Janáček penned his fantasia Sonata 1.X.1905 in response to the fatal bayoneting of an education protester. Even if its two movements, Foreboding and Death, are structured formally, it’s an anguished thing (naturally) written with little heed of conventional pianism, proceeding by small motives and repetitions. It noodles, yet its grim grip remained strong in Weng’s hands. His attention to vertical levels made it more stirring, if rather piecemeal, than this lyrical exemplar.
Similarly Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7. Weng turned it into richer, more wrenching drama than other more propulsively linear readings. The middle Andante caloroso tolled with magnificence, and the famous Precipitato, while driven in the normal ways, was fuller of detail and even color. Weng did not quite stick the notorious ending, but that did not matter.
Weng speaks articulately about his choices, and presents with a refreshing, sometimes brusque, athlete’s get-to-it demeanor. His persona may look unpoetic. I appreciate his work and his style, but I spent some time after this evening thinking about the sometimes comparatively subdued responses his playing receives, including for this recital. Also because reliable keyboard colleagues found little of what I find—little hearing of his interior depths and levels, nor of burnished tone. What does Weng lack?, I asked myself. Songful lines? Equally weighted voicings of chords and polyphony? (What a fancy teacher of mine called ‘democratic gravity’.) An even fineness, and unusual delicacy of touch? A chiseled, or alternatively etched, approach to large or congested passagework? Forward motion, rhythmic strength, propulsive determination? Finally, quietude, and refined savoring? These to my ear are altogether present, so I do not know. Maybe a mentor or a manager will hector Larry Weng about “poeticality,” about looking far ahead with more topline leading. About manifesting inspiration, conveying sweep to inspire audiences.
Schubert’s “late” D.894 G-major Sonata is longer and arguably stranger than his other long strange trips. Even the composer’s pals knew that the music “comes into existence during a state of clairvoyance or somnambulism” and “modulates so oddly and so very suddenly.” Weng got it all: enriched theatricality, the usual violent outbursts, serious, sprightly mirth, the aching modulations as always, and all with a quiet close.
The encore let Weng slouch into lounge mode with Debussy waltzing at his loungiest with (my translation) “The Way Slow.”
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.