Lang Lang at Barbican Hall

Piano Sonata in A, D959
Piano Sonata
Préludes [selection from Books I & II]
Polonaise in A flat, Op.53

Lang Lang (piano)

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 26 April, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Lang Lang. Photograph: Felix BroedeWilhelm Kempff described Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata (D959) as offering “nothing which the out-and-out virtuoso would find rewarding.” As one of the last three great Schubert sonatas, it’s a work that is defined by its sense of intimacy and introspection, not something that dovetails naturally with Lang Lang’s exuberance and keenness to impress.

His earnestness was evident from the start in the understated opening to the Allegro and the free-flowing lyricism in the song-like second subject. But his attempts at introspection often translated into blandness and the louder passages brought exaggerated and overloud dynamics, resulting in a twin-track approach, soft and loud, with nothing in-between. The fortissimo chording in the development section of the first movement simply failed to register emotionally and the outburst in the second movement Andantino was heavy and forced; not a hint of despair. Lang Lang seemed happier in the light-hearted scherzo and the lyrical Rondo but the sense of unease that pervades these movements was entirely absent. His tendency to pound the keyboard at anything approaching forte was a hindrance and, indeed, a disfigurement elsewhere.

Bartók’s Piano Sonata, one of his most uncompromising works, should have been tailor-made for Lang Lang. But the driving, propulsive rhythms of the opening movement were pounded mercilessly into submission. (Other pianists find much more variety and a far greater range of dynamics.) The slow movement was now a depressingly familiar story, the persistence of the note repetition carried little menace, the quieter passages too loud, which compromised Bartók’s far-ranging horizons. The finale was all about Lang Lang, the folk-influenced rhythms buried under an avalanche of fortissimo pounding.

The selection from the two Books of Debussy Préludes did, at last, show more of Lang Lang’s potential and, for the most part, were free of the exaggeration that had blighted the Schubert and the Bartók. ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ and particularly ‘Bruyères’ were elegantly phrased and suitably atmospheric, Lang Lang exhibiting a range of colouring barely hinted at earlier.

Sadly, the concluding Chopin Polonaise brought a resumption of normal service, Lang Lang’s all-consuming bravura thumping, almost disfiguring, the piece out of recognition. A simple and delicately played Chinese folk-tune was the brief encore.

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