Music review: Lang Lang in recital at Disney Hall


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After a decade of waiting for Lang Lang to grow up, to get over his circus act and become the magnificent artist that has always seemed to be the calling of the 29-year-old Chinese superstar, I finally gave up Sunday night and began to accept him for the pianist he is. Here is how it happened.

His recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall had high artistic ambition. He began with Bach. The First Partita is a virtuoso work and, for Bach, showy. Up until the end, Lang Lang played it calmly, warmly. He displayed an easy touch and sweet tone. Counterpoint was clear. The movements are dance movements and, slow or fast, they moved like graceful dances.


He displayed a pianist’s soul, making no attempt to make the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s powerful, American-built Steinway imitate a harpsichord. He was lightweight, but all was fine with the world until the final Gigue, which he clowned up.

Next came Schubert’s vast B-Flat Sonata. It’s one of the composer’s last works and a first choice for many a musical mind when an example of sublimity is sought.

A scold could easily find a hundred places in the first movement alone where Lang Lang was wrong wrong. He began in exactly that place of sublime Schubertian lyricism that some pianists need a lifetime to find. He simply pulled it from air as if something that hovered weightlessly above our heads all the time.

And just as suddenly it was gone. And back again. And gone. Over and over for a remarkably drawn-out and elasticized 23-minute first movement.

What makes this movement so extraordinary is that the angelic Schubertian melody is splattered by strange sonic undercurrents, such as trills in the low register that come from nowhere and lead nowhere. They are interruptions but not disruptions. The angels simply continue their immaculate song.

Lang Lang, though, toyed with and exaggerated every musical obstacle. In the West, we are taught to believe that, in Schubert and his musical world, there is celestial order. In Lang Lang’s deconstructed Schubert, there are events. Some are cute. Some are more sublime than you ever thought possible. Some are angry. Some are bratty bluster. But each is, in its own way, marvelous.


The three other movements of the sonata were not as radical. The slow movement, meant by Schubert to be even more sublime than the first, was, to Lang Lang, moonlight and twinkling stars. The Scherzo had a likeable lilt, except when Lang Lang got a little fancy. He trivialized the end of the last movement with a crashing coda, as if to say transcendence is a listener’s job. The performer’s is to entertain and enlightenment is your problem. After intermission, Lang Lang played Chopin’s second set of etudes, those of Opus 25. The technical demands of these dozen studies have long terrorized the greatest of pianists. For Lang Lang they almost seemed like a game. He didn’t play them so much as play with them.

Poetry was not missing. But show was primary. He flaunted finger-busting passages. He mugged. He brought out goofy accents. He was appropriate and inappropriate. He was funny and actually got a couple of laughs.

But it was during the incredible last three etudes that I had my real Lang Lang conversion. He tore into the 10th, known as “Octaves,” with utter ferocity. But even here he hammed. The calm middle section is like the eye of the hurricane. He made it outrageously sunny, as if all were a joke.

“Winter Wind,” next, was rapturously ferocious, a mess of blurred fingers. Then, utter mayhem with No. 12. Chopin shook up the musical world. And Lang Lang was here truly all shook up. It was magnificent and original piano playing, like no one else’s.

There were two Liszt encores, the first two numbers on his new Liszt recording. He turned a romance into schmaltz and he made “La Campanella,” from Liszt’s “Paganini” Etudes, into a flamboyant, over-the-top carnival act. You pretty much had to see it to believe it (the recording has little of the same effect). But maybe that’s what Lang Lang is really about. He has the ability to get us to believe what we may not normally. If we let him.


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-- Mark Swed