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Heather Mac Donald
Piano Man
If classical music must have a rock star, let it be Lang Lang.
21 February 2014

Virtuosic piano playing is typically associated with breathtakingly fast tempos and thunderous cascades of notes. The Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s recent Carnegie Hall recital showed to the contrary that slow speeds and simplicity provide the most exacting test of musical skill. The three Mozart sonatas with which he opened the concert are deceptively accessible to the nonprofessional pianist; their very simplicity of means can leave the amateur wondering how to bring interest to long passages of arpeggiated left-hand accompaniment or the lightly ornamented scales that transition from one theme to another. Lang Lang provided an answer available only to the greatest musicians: each note is a source of beauty and wonderment, part of a perfectly unfolding arc of feeling. And his capacity to shape that arc was most astounding in the sonatas’ slow movements.

The opening adagio movement of Mozart’s Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major begins with a strangely unsettled melodic line: phrases that seem to end on an offbeat unexpectedly start up again, recalling Haydn’s haunting Sturm-und-Drang-period stops and starts. Lang Lang brought to this introduction a perfect calm, listening intently to the sudden silences and letting them breathe. An arpeggiated left-hand accompaniment then rises out of the stillness; in Lang Lang’s hands, this standard Classical-era device was a living thing, languorously pushing back against the beat while the bittersweet melody sung on top.

In the Sonata No. 8 in A minor, the sunny Andante cantabile second movement arrived like a tranquil harbor after the heartbreaking Allegro maestoso that opens the work. If Lang Lang’s attacks in the Allegro maestoso were occasionally too staccato to convey that movement’s full tragic depth, the otherworldly double trill that concluded the Andante movement and the hushed left-hand chords that opened its development section looked forward to late Beethoven. Lang Lang’s slow tempos can be very slow, almost recalling Ivo Pogorelić, the Croatian pianist who created a sensation in the 1980s with his mannered extremes of tempo and rubato. Lang Lang, however, never loses control of the musical momentum, even across large expanses of quiet. And it is during those moments of repose, where each note is laid bare, that a pianist’s muscular control is put most unforgivingly on display. Lang Lang’s physical prowess is such that he can calibrate the most subtle dynamic shadings between notes played pianissimo, creating a constantly varied musical landscape.

Lang Lang easily made the case for Mozart the proto-Romantic, fittingly paired on the Carnegie program with Chopin’s four Ballades. And he sealed the case for performing Mozart on a modern piano. The fortepiano is the Achilles heel of the period-instrument movement. Early string, brass, and percussion instruments have brought a rousing dose of energy and astringency to an overly familiar repertoire. But though fortepiano proponents (such as Robert Levin) continue to argue gamely that Classical-era keyboard works can best be understood on a contemporaneous instrument, in truth, only an ideological purist could prefer an early piano’s tinny, abbreviated sound to the liquid depths of a steel-strung Steinway. Ironically, some pianists, such as Ingrid Haebler, mimic the clipped tones of a fortepiano when performing Mozart on a modern instrument; Lang Lang, by contrast, exploited the Steinway’s legato capacity to bring out the composer’s lyricism.

The Chopin Ballades were more typical virtuoso fare, and Lang Lang drew from them the expected fire and passion while also showing courtly elegance and occasional Biedermeirian restraint. Here, too, however, his musicianship was most stunning when he floated in a dreamlike ecstasy upon the quiet, shifting harmonies of the fourth Ballade.

It is almost de rigueur among cognoscenti to condescend to Lang Lang. At the start of his career his visual punctuation—flamboyant hand gestures and raised eyes—was reportedly more frequent and pronounced. Today, however, it is rank prejudice to dismiss him. His adoration of classical music is palpable and his capacity to communicate that love as refined as anyone’s. The sold-out audience at Carnegie was filled with young Asian groupies; a Chinese bombshell in a glove-tight sheathe dress and a baby-doll Japanese teen with frilly socks and an off-center pigtail each presented him with red roses. His only concession to his rock-star status was to fall clowningly toward the piano to take his first encore, recalling David Byrne’s stage antics in the concert movie Stop Making Sense. (Lang Lang admirably limited his encores to two—Manuel Ponce’s suave Intermezzo and a jangly Chinese folk song—a show of compassion for the audience that more recitalists should emulate.) It would be nice if classical music didn’t need rock stars, but we should be grateful that those we have are so serious about the music.

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