Lang Lang at Royal Festival Hall

Partita in B flat, BWV825
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960
12 Etudes, Op.25

Lang Lang (piano)

Reviewed by: Malcolm Miller

Reviewed: 17 May, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Lang Lang. Photograph: Felix BroedeIt is not what you do but how you do it, and when it comes to Lang Lang, it’s not so much what he plays but the way he plays it. There is the element of showmanship, of superstardom and celebrity, yet there is also the sheer transcendent prowess at the keyboard, the freedom from technical limits, coupled with imagination, bodily expressing of emotion, drama and passion. Whilst playing cascades of notes at breakneck speed, he finds the space to gesture with one hand as if self-consciously to externalise and even conduct the music, and, as the free hand lands, unexpectedly accents a note, propelling it into the foreground. Even if calculated in his apparent spontaneity, his pianism is exciting as it is virtually unmatched in technical brilliance.

This was evident in Lang Lang’s only London recital this season and the launch of the five-day-long “Lang Lang Inspires” festival. A capacity audience came to hear some masterpieces of the canon, which here received a dazzling and yet also rapturous reading full of intriguing ideas, shimmering textures and impossibly fast tempos. He was most at home in bravura, heart-on-sleeve Chopin, yet the choice of Bach and Schubert gave an opportunity to display the more intimate and reflective aspect of his personality. Whilst open to charges of over-indulgent interpretative freedom, in tempos, dynamics and articulation, his keyboard wizardry brought out remarkably fresh facets.

In the Bach, clearly influenced by some of the great interpreters like András Schiff, the audience witnessed an internal conversation whereby each rhetorical gesture and line was answered by the next, in constant flux. There was nothing dull about the meditative ambience of the expansive ‘Praeludium’ or even the somewhat exaggerated ‘Sarabande’ (which obscured its triple-time pulse within some luxuriant ornamentation), whilst the sheer bonhomie of the faster dances enthralled with its rhythmic buoyancy and electric counterpoint, the ‘Giga’ chuckling along, the bubbly middle-voice surrounded by leaping melodic gestures in the left-hand.

In late Schubert Lang Lang brought out some unusual facets, notably in the slow movement, where the dissonant bass harmonies and the slightly tango-esque ostinato pattern suggested the world of Piazzolla. Similarly in the first movement, it was the cinematic switches of mood which Lang Lang responded to most markedly, highlighting the near-jazzy augmented harmonies, as also in the trio of the third-movement scherzo. Even though he allowed some of the rich concord and inner voices – particularly in the first movement – to be subsumed within a simplified texture, at times the harmony was so clearly etched it sounded like a new piece, and there was a true sense of personal achievement at the climax of the fateful finale, its ambiguous theme constantly interrupted by a tolling bell.

It was in Chopin’s Etudes that Lang Lang’s heart clearly lay, and most creatively effective. In the opening ‘Harp’ study, even though the arpeggios were veiled within an overarching resonance, the etched-out high melody was projected through the texture with uncanny presence, and the extreme rubato only helped the poetry. The F minor may have lacked clarity in articulation of the two-against-three rhythms, but it was all intended to heighten the soaring effect of the flowing melody, which took off into outer space again aided by some judicious rubato. Each study had something special, new, and exhilarating to say: in No.3 the outer sections leapt with energy and tiny gestures came to attention, as seldom before, lyricism caressed with heart-rending melting warmth. Sometimes slow introductions were give ample space to bring out character; sometimes it was the final gestures that were highlighted with almost hammed-up emphasis.

After six etudes Lang Lang took a few moments to mop his brow as if to prove he was indeed human, and then continued with even more vigour. The next study flowed with melodic appeal and breadth, but the Eighth was abruptly accented, dancing with effervescence. The final three etudes formed the climax: a Tenth that shook the hall with its passion and explosive excitement, the filigree patterns in the right-hand shimmering as they poured like volcanic lava from his fingers, the martial rhythms firmly uttered across the varying harmonies – and all at a speed that can seldom have been surpassed. The tripartite octave study that follows unleashed demonic forces, yet Lang Lang’s loving, involving and trance-like middle section took us to ethereal realms, leading to the pungent final study delivered with suitably riveting emphasis.

Two encores crowned the recital, a magical dream-like performance of Liszt’s Consolation in D flat, so poetic, so artfully shaped, fading into silence. And then Liszt’s Rákóczy March (also used by Berlioz in “La Damnation de Faust”), Lang Lang’s own flashy take on Horowitz’s paraphrase, jet-propelled armies of fingers impelled with brilliant colours, sweeping glissandos and glistening cimbalom effects.

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