Superstar Lang Lang Woos Wales with Albeniz, Beethoven and Prokofiev

Beethoven, Albeniz, Prokofiev :Lang Lang (piano), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 29.5.2011 (GPu)

Beethoven, Piano Sonata in C, Op.2 no.3
Beethoven, Piano Sonata in F minor, Op.57 ‘Appassionata’
Albéniz, Iberia, Book 1
Prokofiev, Sonata No.7 in B flat, Op. 83

It is hard to write about Lang Lang in a temperate, balanced manner. It is hard to discern the reality amidst the hype. It is hard to separate the pianist and his performance from the “95% cotton and 5% spandex blended tea shirts … with Lang Lang print logo” or the “8GB USB flash drive with Lang Lang print logo, designed in the shape of a grand piano” which were dutifully advertised in the (expensive) programme, a programme of the glossily illustrated, souvenir “I-was-there” kind. The man who appeared in Time Magazine’s 2009 list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World isn’t necessarily to be ranked quite so highly purely as a musician. On this particular night, when a Chinese interloper got on stage at the end of the concert and hi-jacked the event for what I assume were political motives (he spoke only in Chinese), it was harder still to separate the pianist from all that surrounds him.

Certain things are undeniable. Lang Lang is possessed of a formidable keyboard technique; he has indisputable charisma; he communicates with an audience in what seems a genuine and actually rather unassuming manner. On the downside – and any reservations should take account of the fact that he is still only 28 – he is sometimes tempted towards over-emphasis, to the exaggeration of elements genuinely there in the music he is playing; at times one feels that certain passages are played so spectacularly fast because he can play them that fast, rather than because the design of the music requires them to be played at quite such a tempo. He is an undoubted virtuoso; he is also a considerable musician, but perhaps not more so than many other 28 year old instrumentalists. Certainly he is not yet the finished article – and I suspect that Lang Lang himself would agree with that sentiment, even if the publicity machine surrounding him might not.

Strengths and virtues alike were evident in this pleasing – and rapturously received – recital. The opening piece, Beethoven’s Second Piano Sonata, contained some lovely runs and demonstrated a secure sense of span and structure; but there was some overstressing of contrasts, especially as regards dynamics. At times the touch was excessively percussive so that one lost the shaping and continuity of line that a master of these early sonatas, such as Andras Schiff brings to the music. The scherzo was played with real vivacity and the control of rhythmic patterns (one of Lang Lang’s great virtues) had wit and an attractive sense of the ludic. In the final movement, the central ‘storm’ was played with a strong sense of drama, though some of the sheer elegance of the close eluded Lang Lang on this occasion, as had something of the Largo’s sublimity.

When he turned to the Appassionata one was immediately struck by the compelling certainty with which Lang Lang played the opening bars. The abrupt and surprising changes of dynamics and musical direction which characterise the opening allegro of this sonata were obviously well-suited to Lang Lang’s sensibility, and his performance of the movement, full of fierce accents and dramatic contrasts, was intense and gripping. Some phrases got dragged about a bit, but the drive and inner coherence were well-nigh irresistible. This was thoroughly exciting pianism. The D flat variations of the andante were not quite so compelling; there were moments when their relative simplicity became almost banal – though my judgement may have been clouded by the quantity of virtuoso coughing, sweet-paper-unwrapping and other extraneous noises going on all around the hall during this movement. In the closing allegro and presto Lang Lang created an irresistible sense of momentum; in the coda he made light of the pianistic demands, the syncopated and heavily accented sfortzando phrases and the rapid, running accompaniment fascinating in their phrasing. For me, this was the most consistently satisfying of Lang Lang’s performances in this particular recital, the interpretation in which virtuosity and musicality met most perfectly.

After the interval, a vividly coloured performance of Book I of Albeniz’ Iberia had its moments, while not quite convincing overall. ‘Evocation’ was a trifle disappointing, its rhythms less intriguing than they can be and the whole less poetic than the finest performances I have heard. In retrospect one wonders whether or not the pianist wasn’t affected by external circumstances; as he sat at the piano to begin the second half he noticed a piece of card which had evidently been placed on top of the piano during the interval, read it, with a puzzled and slightly concerned expression, and then put it down to compose himself to begin ‘Evocation’, a process of preparation which took slightly longer than one might have expected. If a distraction had been created, it seemed to have been largely forgotten by the time he came to play ‘El Puerto’ and ‘El Corpus en Sevilla’. ‘El Puerto’ was thoroughly charming, played with an air of great spontaneity so that it sounded like a gifted improviser at work, full of infectious, percussive dancing rhythms and a kind of chirpy roguishness. The contrasts, the transitions from fevered excitement to relative calmness, from revelry to nocturnal calm, of ‘El Corpus de Sevilla’ brought out something like the best in Lang Lang. There was warmth and celebration, impulsive assertiveness and a beautiful serene conclusion. In both ‘El Puerto’ and ‘El Corpus en Sevilla’ the tonal palette was rich and various, the control of rhythm very impressive.

Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata is one of the three so-called ‘War Sonatas’ that Prokofiev wrote as the nineteen thirties turned into the forties; the seventh is full of (to quote Vladimir Ashkenay) “anxiety, disquiet and anticipation of tragedy”. It is also full of technical challenges, not least in the closing movement (marked ‘precipitato’). Lang Lang’s reading of the sonata was often furiously fast, as at the very opening, the accents hammered home almost savagely. The first movement (allegro inquieto) was memorable for the dramatic weight Lang Lang gave to the chord clusters in the development and for the varied weight of sound he deployed through this extraordinary movement (why don’t we hear this sonata more often?). The central, bitter-sweet andante caloroso was a little less successful; the music has a gravitas than Lang Lang seemed to capture only intermittently, though he articulated very well some of the fragmented phrases and the sense of pain they convey. In the final movement, as befits a pianist who has toured with Herbie Hancock, Lang Lang caught some of the jazz-like elements very well, and his absolute technical assurance was evident in the way he handled the movement’s toccata-like textures, its pulsating rhythms hard-driven and its passionate runs up and down the keyboard articulated with impressive clarity. The closing octaves were played with furious speed and passion, though the sheer brilliance of Lang Lang’s playing somehow made the close more purely triumphant than it surely should be?

Not surprisingly Lang Lang received a standing ovation; but in the early stages of that ovation a Chinese man climbed on to the stage, begin to harangue the pianist and wave at him the aforementioned card taken from the top of the piano before, as Lang Lang left the stage, addressing the audience (in Chinese). Rather belatedly, staff in the hall removed him. Guessing at his motives and his cause, one might well have some sympathy with them; but the interruption of the audience’s excited pleasure at the end of the concert was hardly a procedure very likely to win him sympathy and support and his removal from the stage was greeted by cheers from the bulk of the audience. Despite prolonged applause Lang Lang – understandably – did not re-emerge, and a planned signing of CDs and DVDs was cancelled. The incident left a sour taste at the end of an impressive concert. If the publicity machine doesn’t devour him, in the next few years Lang Lang will surely add a further degree of emotional depth to his playing, and a slightly greater subtlety to his use of dynamic contrast. Then we shall have a really great pianist.

Glyn Pursglove