Bang Bang: Between Typewriters and Arrogance

ItalyItaly  Mozart and Chopin:  Lang Lang (piano)  Sala Santa Cecilia Rome 21.11.2014 (JB)

When Chopin wrote his G minor Ballade he sent it to Schumann for an appraisal.  Schumann replied that it was the finest piece of music of Chopin’s that he had ever seen.  Chopin was overjoyed.  He had thought so too, though he didn’t dare to believe it, which is why he consulted his composer-pianist friend.

Chopin was living alone in Vienna at the time of the composition, separated from family and friends and deeply lonely.  The circumstances find expression in the music.  The piece takes shape in a very liberal sonata form.  I say takes shape because form was not on Chopin’s mind.  Sentiment was.  He was struggling to make a connection with his real inner self.  He even thought he had done so.  But could he trust such a thought? Isn’t that “thought” just another sentiment?  Imagine the relief when Schumann’s verdict arrived.

In 2010 Alan Rusbridger, Editor in Chief of The Guardian, set himself the challenge of learning in a year the first Ballade, well enough to play at a recital. Though Mr Rusbridger is an amateur pianist, he is evidently a very gifted one. He took consultation lessons with some excellent pianists and even wrote a book about his experience.  He had been told that Chopin’s first Ballade was the most demanding work in the pianist’s repertoire.  (John Ogden would have told him that that honour goes to the Chopin fourth Ballade.)

I’ve recently been giving my ears a treat with repeated hearings of Benno Moiseiwitsch’s recordings of the four Chopin Ballades.  These were originally on electric 78s with numbers one and three recorded on two 78 records apiece (neither would fit onto one) but the first parts of each were recorded on 23 September 1938 and their respective second parts on 17 March 1939.  [Ballades two and four were both recorded in their entirety on 22 August 1947.]  All this might have ended up sounding like a dog’s dinner.  But the transfers have been exquisitely handled by the greatest maestro of that art –Ward Marston. (Naxos Historical 8.11118)

You probably know that Moiseiwitsch studied with Leschetizky.  The distinguishing feature of the Leschetizky school was that there was no school.  Listen to any of his pupils and they all sound different.  Yet what is self-evident in these “pupils” is that each of them has made a real connection with their inner self.  Each has developed their own identifiable pianistic sound.  I have witnessed Elissò Virsaladze drawing this sound out of her surprised pupils.  (Eilssò’s first teacher was her grandmother, who had been a Leschetisky pupil.)

Connecting with your real self seems to be the name of the game.  Certainly as far as the Chopin first Ballade was concerned.  Or for the Leschetizky tradition.

With a background like that you will see that it takes courage to play the Chopin Ballades. [When Leschetizky heard Moiseiwitsch’s first audition he told him that it was evident that he couldn’t play the piano with his fingers and maybe he should try with his feet.  That must have shaken the boy up!]

Lang Lang is not lacking in courage.  Nor was Moiseiwitsch: he came out on top from the Leschetizky shake-up (as the maestro must have known he would).  But the difference is that Moiseiwitsch’s courage is for Chopin (the listener holds his breath all the way with him) whereas Lang’s courage is for himself –a lesser mortal, I should say, though Lang Lang would probably not agree with me.

I feel that the Lang Lang potential is unlimited.  It’s only limit is the pianist himself.  But that limit turns out to be a severe one.  Debilitating, I should say.  There are moments when he sounds hypnotised by his own self-destruction.  Even hell-bent on it.

I would have guessed that Lang had the perfect temperament to deliver a profoundly romantic piano piece which tries, and finally succeeds, in breaking free of classical sonata form (see detail above).  But he showed not the slightest indication that he had even noticed this key battle between form and expression.  From beginning to end of the Ballades his special effects department was turned up to maximum.  And dashed off with a self-congratulating air.  (In contrast, one feels Moiseiwitsch’s breathing life into every phrase with a prayer that he will not stray by a millimetre from Chopin’s path.  There is a profound and touching humility in the Moiseiwitsch approach.)  Humility is alien to the Lang Lang school.  Why should he be humble?  He is god after all, isn’t it?  And shouldn’t Chopin be grateful that this god deigns to play his music?

The first part of the programme was three Mozart sonatas. In the opening K283 in G there were some charming and beautifully poised sounds; no fuss, not too much pedal and even a hint of humour.  But already in K282 in B flat, Lang’s competition with himself had begun – anything you can play I can play louder and anything you can play I can play faster.  To anyone with a respect for the music this quickly become wearisome on the ear.  Asian pianists are often accused of sounding like a typewriter.  And though there are lots of moments when Lang doesn’t, there are still too many when he does.  His K310 in A minor was so fast and lumpy it sounded like fast water trying to get down a blocked drain.

Every one of the two-thousand eight-hundred seats was taken.  There was the atmosphere of a Revivalist Evangelical Meeting.  The demagogue encouraged them.  Understand that it was not Mozart or Chopin that was the object of their idolatry.  It was Lang Lang.  He is the perfect Ring Master of this circus.  He knows how to tame and control his wild animals.  He would slowly raise his arms to increase the applause.  It worked.  So don’t take notice of this dissenting voice.  Unless, that is, you too would prefer to listen to Mozart and Chopin ahead of Lang Lang.  But understand that this pianist is not for turning. If one or two composers are massacred on the way, so be it.

Jack Buckley

2 thoughts on “Bang Bang: Between Typewriters and Arrogance”

  1. Bravo! Mr Buckly you have guts grit and a knowledgeable mind and discriminating ear to boot. I am so sick of this idol worship in the classical music world. Hollywood is one thing, the Wigmore and other venues are quite another. Thank you for this succinct and propounding gratifying exposure of one of the little princes who have no clothes.

  2. I was one of Mr Buckley’s pupils in the years before he left teaching for journalism – and another country! I’m not sure that I ever found anyone who could equal him as a teacher. He was very enthusiastic in his praise of real musicianship but not afraid to point out any faults that might be holding it back. I don’t follow today’s classical scene as closely as I might but this review comes across as refreshing considering the nauseating idolisation surrounding this pianist – and many others. They would all do well to go into a sort of artistic ‘retreat’.


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