Lang Lang plays the Goldberg Variations at Barbican Hall

Arabeske, Op.18
Aria with 30 Variations ‘Goldberg Variations’, BWV988

Lang Lang (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 10 December, 2021
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations has figured prominently in Lang Lang’s life over the past two years, with his DG album of two performances (one live, one studio) out earlier this year, and the work itself was the point of a tour – including a Barbican recital scheduled for last year, Covid-scuppered.

What a difference a year makes. The DG studio recording is a model of restraint compared to this live recital, which, oddly, Lang Lang prefaced with a performance of Schumann’s Arabeske, one of the romantic repertoire’s more subtle and disarming examples of poetry in music. The Lang Lang genius in seeming to conjure music out of the void was out in force in its quiet and oblique opening, but then he went on to weigh the piece down with anxiety and effort, which in turn set the agenda for his hyperbolic – sometimes just hyper – approach to the Goldbergs, a work that he has been thinking about for many years.

Lang Lang has taken pleasure in the gestural aspect of Bach but he has kept faith with its Baroque genesis, and, in the case of the Goldbergs, at least referenced the music’s harpsichord registration, Here he handed it over unambiguously to the concert grand. As in the recording, he laid out his stall in the ‘Aria’ with unambiguous directness, the repeats’ decorations layered with further elaboration and a frequently more powerful left-hand overshadowing the right. His speed was on the slow side, just to anchor it, and the move into the first variation hitting just the right energy level. Then as he proceeded, things became more exaggerated and extreme – big contrasts of dynamics, short bursts of localised rhetoric, minutely delayed harmonic resolutions in the slower sections, bewildering and impulsive voice-leading, and ever more overwrought ornamentation that would have flattered Chopin. Again, unlike on the recording, he played down the tightening effect of the canons at every third variation, and for all his dazzling speeds in the virtuoso numbers they, along with some generous pedalling, often did not enhance Bach’s contrapuntal wizardry.

The ‘Overture’ (Variation 16) and the Variation 29 fantasy gave us bravura playing at its most torrential, against which he stretched out the ‘Black Pearl’ minor-key no.25 to about twelve minutes. But once you became aware of Lang Lang’s expressive armoury, his approach lost its edge, painting itself into an emotionally generic corner and leaving his audience to marvel at his stupendous technical facility.

Lang Lang’s fans were out in force, all of them obediently masked, and, as the no-interval recital progressed, there were quite a few signs of restlessness. Like Richter, he was the solitary soloist in a pool of light in an otherwise darkened auditorium. After a long quasi-religious hush following the ‘Aria’ da capo (this time with no repeats), there was a moderate standing ovation, and the pianist love-bombed his audience with his irrepressible showmanship. And there was an encore, Jasmine Flower, a Chinese folksong.

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