Lang Lang Recital

Sonata in C, K330
Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58
Kinderszenen, Op.15
Preludes, Op.23 – No.2 in B flat; No.5 in G minor
Années de pèlerinage: année 2, Italie – Sonetto 104 del Petrarca
Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 in C sharp minor (arr. Horowitz)

Lang Lang (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 23 January, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The 22-year-old Chinese pianist Lang Lang has been making a name for himself as the new pianist-wonder kid on the block. He has already appeared with many of the world’s leading orchestras and conductors and has a recording contract with DG. This Festival Hall recital had a very peculiar look to it; the first three works just don’t seem to belong in the same programme as the shorter final pieces and to manage the change of moods and era would require some pretty mature playing from Lang Lang.

The Mozart Sonata was played with minimal use of the sustaining pedal, the tempos flowed and the fingerwork was crystalline. But while there were some very fine dynamic gradations at piano and below, the overall effect was curiously flat and dispassionate.

Chopin’s great B minor Sonata opened at a comparatively restrained pace and Lang Lang relaxed far too much for the second subject, thus making the exposition – with repeat – sound episodic. As in the Mozart the dynamic range was limited and as a result the climax of the development was seriously under-powered. In the scherzo the fingering was very precise but there was insufficient rhythmic attack and Lang Lang’s tempo for the trio was simply too slow. This choice of measured tempos extended into the Largo and here the phrasing began to sound just a little mannered and self-conscious. The last movement was disfigured by an under-powered left-hand with too greater slowing for the second subject and a lack of cumulative power.

In Kinderszenen the opening tempo was slow and from ‘Träumerei’ onwards everything sounded like a molto adagio. It was all very beautiful and soulful, but had little to do with Schumann!

The two famous Rachmaninov Preludes were certainly virtuosic, but the B flat Alla Marcia needed a more exultant left-hand and greater sweep and power. While the Maestoso G minor was too slow at the opening and led Lang Lang to – consciously or unconsciously – accelerate to each climax; and in a very slow account of the central section Lang Lang failed to project the quintessentially Rachmaninovian bell-like tolling quality of the right-hand.

Liszt’s great Sonnet was better and had a greater sense of flow and line, but the shifting harmonic line and angular bass were under-characterised; everything was too smooth, too soft grained. In the Hungarian Rhapsody the Introduction and C sharp minor ‘Lassú’ was very slow and lacked natural swing and the ensuing ‘friss’ episodes contained some startlingly precise staccato right-hand playing, but there was no sense of joy and release, the tempo changes being marked and unsubtle and the dance elements seriously underplayed.

For encores Lang Lang offered “Moon and Lake”, and Flight of the Bumble Bee in Rachmaninov’s transcription. Lang Lang is clearly an exceptional virtuoso, but there are a number of problems with his interpretative approach. He certainly doesn’t understand rubato; rather he uses very marked tempo changes which leads much of his playing to sound episodic, and his rhythmic attack is flat and unvaried. The phrasing is often self-conscious and certainly doesn’t sound natural or spontaneous, indeed it becomes almost predictable and caught within the bar-lines. Like so many contemporary super-virtuosos Lang Lang simply doesn’t have an element of diablerie and spontaneity in his playing and as a result it all sounds contrived and controlled.

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