There isn’t a lot that hasn’t been said about Lang Lang. His path from young prodigy to global phenomenon has been well documented and amply reviewed, yet the usual debate of style versus substance still floats around his concert performances. To get that one out of the way, Lang Lang has both, and in spades. Yes, the style is sometimes flash – seriously, I’d love the address of his tailor – and he knows how to acknowledge a crowd with just the right degree of a superstar wave. But sit him in front of a piano and he’s instantly an artist in communion, bringing imagination and a dazzling technique to bear on whatever he chooses to play.
For his Sydney recital he was perhaps unadventurous, essentially reproducing his latest recording (Lang Lang in Paris, on Sony CD and DVD) with the Bach Italian Concerto thrown in, but familiarity with the disc hadn’t prepared me for the sheer brilliance of his playing, especially in the four Chopin Scherzi, and his ability to bring music to life, as in his revelatory performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons.
Visually he’s a fascinating player to watch and the perfect advocate for why you need to hear classical music live. Yes, there is the almost fey matter of that left hand floating over the keyboard like something out of Beau Brummell, but it is immediately obvious that any manual flamboyance and the gentle sway of the body is part of what makes his playing so organic and emotionally engaging. Lose it, and you’d lose a vital ingredient. Add to that his considerable taste when it comes to weight and musical line and you have the perfect player for the kind of Romantic piano music on offer here.
Lang Lang performs in the Sydney Opera House © Christie Brewster
I’ll admit that Tchaikovsky’s musical evocations of the 12 months of the year has never really jumped out at me on recording (and it’s still not that common in the concert hall). The music is engaging, often charming, but it doesn’t call for the technique you need for Rachmaninov, or plough the musical depths like a Brahms or a Schumann. Perhaps for that very reason, I was genuinely surprised and delighted by Lang Lang’s interpretation. These are mood pieces, and he knows very well how to create a mood. His ample rubato may have come dangerously close to more than the work can bear but, for me, he brought them to life with freshness and detail while holding the attention thanks to a natural gift for storytelling and a delicacy of touch that frequently ravished the senses.
From the exquisite light and shade of the January Fireside, with rapt pianissimo playing and delicious tiny flourishes, he moved through the lively February gopak to the sensory perfection of March’s Song of the Lark. The Chopinesque qualities of movements like the June Barcarolle allowed him to bring plenty of pianistic panache to the party, while the transition from the grandiose September Hunt into the wistful Autumn Song was spellbinding. Following that with some highly atypical Bach was a bit of a disappointment. This was JSB with rather too much of a dash of Scarlatti, fast and furious and with the two hands telling different tales rather than achieving the perfect balance from which Bach playing really benefits.
The second half was devoted to all four of Chopin’s dark and mysterious Scherzi – surely the least funny ‘musical jokes’ in the canon. There was plenty of the necessary grandiosity on display, the hands arching like twin Eiffel Towers at times, the better to come crashing down on the keyboard. The occasional whipping away of the right hand after an especially well-placed high note added a musketeer’s flourish to proceedings. Yet his passion and sense of the poetry within these extraordinary pieces was utterly hypnotic. The bleak, acerbic B Minor opener showed his command of the technical demands with extreme tempi and furious flurries of notes. It also revealed his sense of the inner lines running not just below the scurrying right hand patternings, but those lying deep, deep within the mind of the composer himself. The beautiful Brahmsian Second Scherzo combined a capricious joie de vivre with a sense of line and bags of dynamic contrast – again, those heart stopping pianissimos. The moody C Minor Third was all thrills and spills before the fairy lightness of the E Major Fourth Scherzo brought the set to a surprisingly calm conclusion.
A rapturous crowd roused themselves from their sickbeds (the batteries of coughing had made the concert hall sound more like a sanatorium at times) to give him a well deserved standing ovation, punctuated by a trio of encores and much waving and shouting. But for all the fun and games at the end, it was the music of Tchaikovsky and Chopin that remains in the mind the morning after. That and the cut of his jacket.
Lang Lang plays the Grieg Concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on June 10 and 11. Call box office for tickets (02) 8215 4600