In recent years Chinese rockstar pianist Lang Lang has been coming to Washington once or twice a season, to play with the National Symphony (as he did in 2007 and 2005) or give a recital (sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society in 2006 at Strathmore and in 2005 at the Kennedy Center). He was back on Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, to work his Magic™ in the first half of a recital diptych sponsored by WPAS, with his close competitor, Yundi Li, scheduled for the following evening at Strathmore. Would the double-bill provide the ideal occasion to revisit the idea of Dionysian vs. Apollonian musicianship, proposed in the New York Times by Bernard Holland? Well, maybe not -- it may be better to avoid Holland's idea since he has recently been skewered for some spectacular errors in a review and since the Dionysian-Apollonian thing has been peevishly and brilliantly dissected by pianist Jeremy Denk.
Lang Lang, pianist
The Magic of Lang Lang is the latest disc that Deutsche Grammophon, which signed a contract with Lang Lang in 2003, is trying to peddle. In five years of that contract, Lang Lang has produced just one solo studio album, in 2006, the highly variable Memory, one live recital CD, and some hits and some misses in concerto CDs (nay to Rachmaninov, yea to his recent Beethoven concerti, says Jens, and I concur). Magic has the dubious honor of being the worst album Lang Lang has produced so far, a Frankenstein monster patched together from previous releases (including Horowitz's amped-up version of Liszt's second Hungarian Rhapsody, from the Memory disc), live recordings, and a horrid, treacly collaboration with Andrea Bocelli (from the Live in Tuscany concert -- as an experiment, I tried to listen but could tolerate it for only about 30 seconds). Is Lang Lang's extraordinary promise dying on the vine? Is he in danger of becoming, in the hilarious phrase of Mark Swed, the "Pavarotti of the piano"?
In a preview at the WETA blog, our own Jens Laurson cited Chinese impressions of Lang Lang and Yundi Li's careers as being surprisingly the reverse of common assumptions in the West: Li as the technical showman and Lang as the dreamy artist. Lang's recital validated that impression in many ways, as the overall performance came off as eclectic, whimsical, and woolgathering. Opening with Schubert's A major sonata (D. 959), Lang emphasized its moony qualities, playing as much as possible with a startling dynamic control, often not rising above a whisper, as in the frail and translucent second theme of the first movement. The second movement was in the same ultrasoft vein, a graceful triple-meter reverie, with the middle section treated freely and with dramatic abandon. The third movement had Lang's hands leaping with ballet lightness, like a spastic puppet's or a dragonfly's lacy wings (if still short of Chico Marx), and the long fourth movement showed more of the same taut control.
The Magic of Lang Lang
Beethoven, Piano Concerti 1/4, Lang Lang, Orchestre de Paris, C. Eschenbach
After intermission came the best part of the evening, a hammered but clearly phrased Bartók piano sonata (BB. 88, Sz. 80). It was great to hear Lang challenged with something other than his usual familiar territory, a programming choice that required both a score and a page-turner. The outer movements highlighted Lang's percussive attack in the numerous barbaric shrieks and jarring, jagged folk-inspired themes. Shards of melody were piled up in clustered voicings, often corrosively dissonant. The second movement even invited Lang to go back into his dream world, announced by the tolling bell of the opening bars.
After a hearty ovation for the Bartók, Lang played a set of Debussy preludes, not at all in the order given in the program (the Book 1 set preceded the Book 2 set and they were further disordered). Mostly, the Debussy was an opportunity for Lang Lang to retreat into his nebulous Magic world, with ethereal readings of La fille aux cheveux de lin, played first, and La cathédrale engloutie, played third. Lang finally prodded me awake with Minstrels, played fourth, with its tossed-off jokes and slap-happy drunks slurring their way through a dance-hall waltz. His Feux d'artifices had plenty of sparks, too.
With the final work, Chopin's A-flat polonaise (op. 53), and the encores, Lang seemed to be making up for lost time, trying to inject a whole evening's virtuosity into the space of a few minutes. The Chopin came across like a Duchamp-esque rewrite of a familiar masterpiece, played so fast that all of Chopin's operatic relish of bel canto flourishes was simply steamrollered over in the process. The first encore, a Chopin étude (op. 10, no. 3), was calm and sad, with a blindingly fast middle section. The second encore, also offered by Lang Lang at the end of his 2006 recital at Strathmore was a Chinese work called Spring Dance, and nicknamed by Lang a "Chinese tango." Lang Lang handled all of the phenomenal technical challenges with aplomb, but the piece is vapid, cringe-inducing dross.
Anne Midgette, A Classic Contrast (Or So It Seems) (Washington Post, March 15)
The next concert presented by WPAS features pianist Alfred Brendel's final recital performance in Washington (March 17, 8 pm). It is one of the most important concerts of the season.