|A seductive star in an elegant setting.|
The hype preceding Lang Langʼs performance at a gala concert on Saturday was such that one had to wonder: Does he have the chops to back it up?
The answer is a qualified yes. Lang Lang is a gifted player, one of those rare musicians who has so completely mastered his instrument and the music that virtuoso skills are more a foundation than a peak, freeing him to develop a distinctive voice and soaring levels of expression. Even the word “interpretation” falls short of describing his ability to color, caress, burnish and otherwise shape a piece into something uniquely his own.
Stylistically, Lang Lang feels the music more than plays it. He rarely glances at the keyboard, eyes closed much of the time as he sways with the melodies and caps the final notes of a movement with a delicate, raised hand or dramatic sweep of his arm. In his best moments Lang Lang seems to become what heʼs playing, the music flowing through him just as it does through the keys and strings.
Of course, you can get away with this sort of thing when youʼre playing J.S. Bach, Schubert and Chopin – or Chopin études, anyway. Lang Langʼs discography encompasses a more challenging repertoire, and certainly there is no arguing with his technical proficiency. A few presto passages during Bachʼs Partita No. 1 and the études were enough to demonstrate his remarkable dexterity. Still, this is a far cry from, say, Boris Giltburg giving a recital of four difficult pieces by Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Schumann and Listz, or Nikolai Lugansky playing Listzʼs Years of Pilgrimage and Transcendental Études.
But the program is not where Lang Langʼs appeal lies. His star power is in his ability to emotionally connect with his audience, which cuts across genres, composers, even national and cultural boundaries. Whether heʼs playing Chopin or a traditional Chinese song, Lang Lang approaches the music with a gentle touch and great sensitivity, imbuing it with a seductive quality that holds his listeners spellbound. Then thereʼs the persona – spiked hair, boyish good looks and a disarming grin that had half the women in the crowd swooning before he played a single note.
While there are more authoritative interpretations of Bachʼs Partita No. 1, Lang Lang displayed impressive versatility in giving each of the six movements a different flavor. He opened with a straightforward “Preludium,” added some tasty spices to a blazingly fast “Allemande” and “Courante,” and finished with a fancy flourish in the “Gigue.” What serves as a classic warm-up piece for most pianists became a mini-showcase in Lang Langʼs hands, an intelligent and imaginative display of his skills.
His legato style – often, there are not even breaks between movements – was perfectly suited to Schubertʼs Sonata in B flat major. Lang Lang gave it a graceful quality, playing every note like ripples on water, offering gentle variations in color and tone. Even in the heavier passages, there was barely a hint of a harsh note. He has such soft hands that the music floats from the piano like snowflakes.
Surprisingly, he seemed least comfortable with the Chopin études. Aside from some painterly brush strokes in the contemplative passages, it was a workmanlike reading, notable mostly for Lang Langʼs distinctive rhythm and phrasing. Staring off into space as he varied the tempos from excruciatingly slow to dazzlingly quick, he seemed to be taking direction from some divine conductor.
Leaping to their feet as the final echoes of Chopin were still reverberating throughout the hall, the crowd called Lang Lang back for three encores. Two were Liszt pieces that were obviously more familiar ground, played with liquid elegance. But the most interesting was a Chinese song, The Moon Chased by a Colorful Cloud, that was a delightful amalgam of Eastern music played in a Western style.
If there were any hesitant hearts left in the audience, he won them over by stepping into the audience after being given a large bouquet of flowers and presenting them to the honoree of the evening, Czech opera singer Ludmila Dvořáková. Whatever else one may think of Lang Lang, heʼs a class act.
Videos and much more about Lang Lang at: http://www.langlang.com/
Photographs courtesy of Dvořák's Prague