Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ivan Hewitt's Thoughts on Lang Lang

Ivan Hewitt has now filed a London Telegraph review of Lang Lang performing Béla Bartók's second piano concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, and he set me to thinking about some of the things I have written about this pianist. Indeed, I almost felt as if Hewitt was addressing me directly with his opening paragraphs:

Critics are supposed to have open minds, so, as I waited for feted Chinese pianist to appear, I tried – not altogether successfully – to suppress the horrible memory of his Proms recital last year, when he turned some well-loved classical masterworks into caricatures.

As a wise colleague reminded me, it’s wrong to dismiss Lang Lang’s brand of barnstorming virtuosity out of hand. It was an accepted norm in piano performance until the early 20th century, when a puritanical notion of “fidelity to the text” took over, and any overt display of personality was frowned on.

This led me to reflect on Lang's appearance with the San Francisco Symphony this past December, when he was playing Frédéric Chopin's first (Opus 11) piano concerto in E minor. There is no question that Chopin is as susceptible to "barnstorming virtuosity" as Bartók is (if not more so); but I am not sure I would call my reaction to Lang's performance "puritanical." In the spirit of that "Happy Warrior," Al Smith, let's "look at the record." Here is what I wrote about Lang's Chopin:

Given that Chopin's concerto predates Tannhäuser by about fifteen years, we were certainly not about to continue the journey we had begun [with the Richard Wagner excerpts performed before the intermission]. Furthermore, the work is relatively early and not particularly representative of the composer's present or future skills. Extended forms were never his strong suit, nor was orchestral writing. He is best appreciated for the many ways he could apply a basic ternary form to solo piano writing. A pianist like Arthur Rubinstein, who not only commanded pretty much the entire Chopin canon but also kept coming up with new readings of the works in that canon, could mine his experience to give this concerto the convincing performance it deserves; but Lang seemed more interested in showmanship than understanding. There was almost a choreographed plan to all of his physical gestures of attentiveness during the orchestral sections, and it seemed as if more effort went into those physical gestures than into the musical gestures in the score. The result was a highly skilful act of audience manipulation based on nothing more than the compelling personality of the soloist.

In other words I was less concerned with any "overt display of personality" than I was with whether or not I was being very scrupulously manipulated (which I happen to dislike most intensely). Going back to any one of the several recordings I have of Rubinstein playing this concerto, I realize that I was being too generous to Lang in trying to be apologetic about Chopin. Either Lang didn't "get it" or didn't want to "get it," neither of which (but particularly the latter) is particularly forgivable in my book. My reading of Hewitt's review gave me the impression that Lang got some (but definitely not all) of the Bartók concerto; and, since I happen to enjoy this particular concerto with considerable relish and enthusiasm, I suspect I would have been less generous than Hewitt in any review I would have written. In the spirit of the piece I wrote yesterday about the Laurel Ensemble, the fundamental issue is not about "fidelity to the text;" rather, it is about a far more amorphous concept of authenticity, which involves not only the text but also a context that includes the composer, the "setting" of the composition, and possibly even the musicians with whom one shares the stage. However generous Lang may be with his time where would-be pianists are concerned, the question of his authenticity continues to bother me; and I hope it will be resolved sooner rather than later.


DigitalDan said...

What did Lang's performance sound like when you closed your eyes? One could infer from your post that the music was inferior or at least not superior, but in fact, not a word was said about it.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Dan, you are now asking me to stretch my memory; but it is a reasonable exercise. Remember that I was listening to the Chopin concerto in the second half of a concert whose first half consisted entirely of Wagner excerpts. If you follow the hyperlink for the source of my comments about Lang, you will see that I was very impressed with the Wagner portion of the program in both conception and execution. I always believe that one can hear more in every performance of Wagner that is played well, and this was such a performance.

Taking this one step further, even a mediocre performance of Wagner can hold my attention if the performer can make a case for what (s)he is trying to do with his music. Mediocre Chopin, on the other hand, tends to bore me into a stupor. When I closed my eyes to block out Lang's physical performance, I realized that I was running the risk of falling asleep. It was as if he was playing the notes without anything to "say through them," so to speak; and, as I have observed in
more positive accounts of Chopin performances
, Chopin does not deserve that kind of treatment. I would not accuse Chopin's concerto of being inferior, but I think I can make a case against a performer who makes it sound inferior.

Philip Czaplowski said...

I heard Lang Lang play the Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in Melbourne, and it was an abomination. It's sad that someone can build a career on good looks, and the lack of musical understanding of the crowd he draws.

Philip Czaplowski said...

should I add that Lang Lang is the equivalent of the Spice Girls of classical music? Or maybe "Bond"?