January 31, 2008

Charming the Audience

Lang Lang at the Piano


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sonata for Piano in B-Flat Major, K. 333

Robert Schumann
Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17

Six traditional Chinese pieces

Enrique Granados
Los requiebros (No. 1 from the first book of the Goyescas)

Richard Wagner
Isoldes Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Transcription for Piano by Franz Liszt


Lang Lang - Piano

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Charming the Audience

Lang Lang at the Piano

by Anicia Timberlake / Photo: Kasskara / DG

Lang Lang has got the whole world in his hands. And why shouldn't he? He is talented, charming, young, and has great hair. He also contradicts the old stereotype that child prodigies from Asia are nothing more than little technical robots or cute, cuddly little panda bears (as a 2006 review in Die Welt unfortunately described him). Lang Lang is anything but a robot or a panda bear. Thursday's sold-out concert at the Philharmonie—in the great hall, no less—showed him charming the audience with his impeccable showmanship as well as with his excellent playing.

Lang Lang

The opening piece, Mozart's Sonata in B-flat Major K 333, was a string of beautiful, well-considered moments. No note was routine—rather, each gesture was deliciously well-considered, and no musical possibility left uninvestigated, so that the music did not sound at all abstract, but rather like a story told in a foreign language. Modern ears are so accustomed to Mozart that his works can sound compositionally humdrum; Lang Lang paid scrupulous attention to each harmonic ambiguity, so that the well-known sonata sounded weirder and more experimental than I had thought possible. In some parts, it was, without exaggerating, like hearing the piece for the first time. Schumann's Fantasy was equally delightful, and allowed the pianist to indulge in his not insignificant flair for the dramatic. Luckily, this flair manifested itself not only in keyboard-banging but also in very extreme pianissimos and ritardandos.

The second half, unfortunately, was not quite so convincing. Lang Lang began with a verbal introduction of the six Chinese pieces that fully enchanted the audience, from his initial "Guten Abend" to his well-chosen quips about the pieces themselves. The first piece, he said in English, was similar to Debussy, and the Chinese name "sounded like this," whereupon he uttered the name in Chinese and everyone chuckled, as they were supposed to. It's great to have an artist who can make light of himself, but on the other hand, the obvious play on panda-bear cuteness was a little awkward for this reviewer. The pieces themselves were not especially interesting. Each traditional melody was arranged according to a different classical style—the aforementioned Debussy, "a Chinese Bach", a fairly enjoyable tango. However, there was nothing really to recommend them other than that Lang Lang plays fast runs well. The audience went wild for the show. The Granados was much of the same excitement, rife with glissandi and trills (admittedly excellent) but devoid of anything else interesting. Wagner arranged for piano loses a lot of its flavor; after the other pieces, it seemed like just another piece of overdone pianistic drama. The last piece, the Liszt, was the best of this flashy lot: it was flamboyant but not totally unsubtle, and the octave 16th-notes were thrilling.

The best thing about this musically regrettable second half was the show. Lang Lang beats time with his left hand while playing with his right, tosses his head back and forth and leans back with a great intake of breath for dramatic moments. He finishes with hands poised above the keyboard and head thrown backward, and—most impressively—all these gestures have a very natural, spontaneous feel, though they are so graceful that they must be at least a little rehearsed. He greets applause with a warm, chummy smile and takes care to bow solemnly to all sides of the hall. Though this sort of physical display can come across as gimmicky and trained in that panda-bear way, Lang Lang's seems genuine and also more mature than might be expected from someone so young.

The concert was greeted with cheers—actual cheers, not just restrained "Bravos"—and a partial standing ovation. The encore, Debussy's Girl with the flaxen hair, was tenderly performed, and met with a long awed silence after its last note. However, I left the concert feeling a little cheated. Given that this artist is doubly blessed with excellent musical and show sense, it is a pity that his choice of pieces tended towards, dare I say, flash-and-trash. Lang Lang can charm anybody, and as his Mozart showed, he is not lacking in musical chops. He could easily afford to program less virtuosic music and still be met with the kind of reception he enjoyed on Thursday. But luckily we have many years of Lang Lang ahead of us.