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Review: Lang Lang packs Disney Hall for concert that’s part thrill ride, part romantic swoon

Pianist Lang Lang performs Wednesday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times)

The musical path of Lang Lang continues to zigzag all over the place.

The 34-year-old Chinese pianist released a concept album last September called “New York Rhapsody” in which he mostly plays backup to a succession of pop singers extolling the romance and grit of the city. (The juxtaposition of Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd.” and “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” gives you the idea.) In the middle of all of this was Lang’s belated recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” with Herbie Hancock — mellower than their first joint Hollywood Bowl performance in 2009.

Wednesday night, Lang resurfaced at Walt Disney Concert Hall, switching gears again. No pop singers, no lavish orchestrations — just a straight classical recital with some fresh repertoire on hand. As usual, he drew a packed house of effusive fans.

If you were looking for the big Romantic blockbuster made to order for his formidable technical abilities, Lang had something for you, all right.

Lang Lang: Liszt, Albéniz, Granados and Chopin.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times)
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After warming up with a drifting, melting rendition of Debussy’s Ballade, with hands theatrically lowered slowly onto the last chord, Lang wasted no time trying to out-Horowitz Vladimir Horowitz in Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. The massive bass notes stabbed away, the titanic octaves and fast runs high in the treble clef blasted up to the gallery. He seemed to go bonkers in the fourth movement just before inching his way through the quiet coda. Although there have been more unified performances of this half-hour obstacle course, I have to admit, this one was a thrill ride; it grabbed my attention and held it.

However, Lang Lang may have done a bigger service to music by making the last half of the recital an all-Spanish program. Spanish piano pieces rarely turn up in such profusion on piano recitals, and as the program notes accurately pointed out, a lot of the piano music of Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados is far better known in 20th century guitar transcriptions than in their original form. Some of the selections of Albéniz’s “Suite Española” fit so well on the guitar that you would swear that the composer had written them for that instrument in the first place.

Lang Lang’s own takes on six selections from “Suite Española” and two from Granados’ “Goyescas” broke with the more controlled example set by the Spanish pianist who once owned this repertoire, Alicia de Larrocha.

More relaxed pieces like Albéniz’s “Granada” and Granados’ “Quejas, o La Maja y el Ruiseñor” could handle Lang’s swooning rubatos and crystalline trilling and rippling quite well. But the rhythms of Albéniz’s “Sevilla” and “Asturias” were disrupted by some strange hesitations in the former and over-the-top frenzy in the latter — maybe too strong a dose of flamenco there. As for the high-decibel bout with Manuel de Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance” — well, the Steinway survived and the audience went wild.

To this, Lang Lang added a delicate, beautiful rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, B. 49, and after saying his only greeting of the night — “Happy Chinese New Year!” — a piano arrangement of Li Huanzhi’s rocketing “Spring Festival Overture.”

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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