Review: Lang Lang shows why purists are coming around

Lang Lang gave the kind of performance at Disney Hall that is increasingly making purists listen intently instead of wincing at his over-the-top playing.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The phenomenal duality of Lang Lang continues.

Last month he was at the Grammy Awards in Staples Center pounding out splatters of notes within an overblown production of Pharrell Williams’ catchy hit song, “Happy.”

But Sunday night, a few blocks up the hill at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the other Lang Lang – a maturing, serious artist – gave a solo recital that just about any classical purist could savor.

The 32-year-old Chinese pianist has been increasingly converting the skeptics, or at least getting them to listen intently. Some recent Lang recordings for Sony – a liquid-toned Chopin recital, a double set of Mozart concertos and sonatas – indicate that his playing is becoming deeper and more musical.

Lang’s physical poses – which never really bothered me but drove others up the wall – are now less exaggerated, and they serve as a reflection of where the music is going, not a distraction.

When not otherwise occupied, his left hand gently conducts what his right hand is doing, a throwback to Glenn Gould. He remains a gracious host, always bowing to all four sides of surround-sound, sold-out Disney Hall, but there was no verbal banter. His music was enough, and he took his doting audience along with him on a no-compromise classical journey.


Lang gave J.S. Bach’s “Italian” Concerto a freewheeling, sometimes surprising treatment – using his stabbing technique sparingly in the first movement to make points in the left hand stand out, applying plenty of rolling rubatos in the second.

The third movement was not what I would have expected from this virtuoso; it was moderately slow and relaxed with limpid dynamic control, a flowing river rather than the usual stoked locomotive.

The bulk of the evening was devoted to two large-scale assemblies of pieces from the 19th century where Lang’s essentially Romantic temperament and wide range of touches bloomed on sympathetic ground.

You don’t hear all of Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons” played as a cycle too often, and Lang made it an experience of contrasts as varied as the weather itself – turning on the hammering drive in “August” and “September,” ruminating through “April” and drifting through “May” with lots of expression. The most familiar piece, the “June” Barcarolle, was taken at a glacial tempo, as if in a dream.

The complete set of Chopin four Scherzos could take everything that Lang threw at them – the wild, impressive extroverted flourishes, the melting touch that he applied to the Trio sections, a gorgeous rippling waterfall effect in the third Scherzo, the bombs-away codas.

There were impulsive tempo fluctuations, yet he just managed to keep each Scherzo structure under control.

The only sign of Lang Lang the grandstanding showman came at the very end, where after a few curtain calls, he executed a modest forward moonwalk back to the piano and barreled through Mozart’s “Turkish March” at a frantic tempo. But it was fun.