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 Examiner.com 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.