Monday, March 26, 2012

Ivan Hewitt Revives the Lang Lang Question

In the wake of Lang Lang having performed all five of the piano concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, Ivan Hewitt has used his column for the London Telegraph to review the disconnect between “his 15,000 adoring fans” and the less-than-enthusiastic critics.  Hewitt makes some good points, and I certainly think the column is worth reading.  However, this is a topic that exceeds the limitations of his column space;  so I would like to provide some supplementary thoughts that both support and question his position.

Let’s begin with the example he presents in Lang Lang’s defense:

Think back to the times when you’ve seen a performance of this concerto, or any concerto that calls on the notion of the heroic performer. Remember how the emphatic passages got much of their power from the look of the pianist’s raised forearms and his expression of stern invincibility. Or how the deliciously coloured flourishes of the slow movement were given an extra glow by the graceful flourish of the pianist’s fingers.

Now imagine another performance where the sounds emanating from the piano have exactly the same expressive force, but they’re played by the pianist with an air of studied neutrality, so you hardly notice his presence. Difficult, isn’t it? In fact I would say it’s impossible, and not just because performance always involves responding to the whole human being in front of us. It’s because a lot of music from Beethoven onwards absolutely requires self-assertive performance. To avoid it out of some misguided loyalty to classical music’s ''purity’’ robs the music of something essential.

The thing about the argument in that second paragraph is that it is not as impossible as Hewitt seems to think.  The fact is that I only had to consult my personal memory to summon up just what Hewitt wanted me to imagine.  Furthermore, the pianist in question was one of those “greats,” perhaps one that provided those critics attacking Lang Lang with just the sort of cudgel they needed.  The pianist was Alfred Brendel.  The occasion was a recital he had given at the California Institute of Technology.

When I had learned that Brendel would be performing Franz Schubert’s D. 960 B-flat major piano sonata, I made it a point to drive from Santa Barbara to Pasadena for the occasion.  The event turned out to be one of sobering disenchantment.  I do not know if I would call Brendel’s composure one of “studied neutrality;”  but there was no ignoring his air of detachment.  Indeed, he was so detached that I had to wonder if his mind was occupied only with getting out of the Caltech auditorium (if not getting out of California) while the rest of his body was on automatic pilot.  The whole affair left me wondering why Brendel had invested so much time in learning D. 960 in the first place.

In that context I would say that Lang Lang might be a useful antidote for those who have become besotted with Brendel’s particular approach to “purity.”  However, like any drug, that antidote should be taken with both moderation and discretion.  Clearly, I do not mind pianists (or any other musicians, for that matter) who view performance as a “whole body” experience;  but I draw the line when it seems as if the body is more important than the music.  This takes me back to the last time I used one of Hewitt’s columns as a platform for refining my own thoughts about Lang Lang.

Back in April of 2009, I wrote a post entitled “Ivan Hewitt’s Thoughts on Lang Lang,” which was a response to my first encounter with one of Hewitt’s well-reasoned defenses of Lang Lang.  In that post I recalled what I had written after my first encounter with Lang Lang, when I saw him perform Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 11 concerto in E minor (the first) with the San Francisco Symphony.  Here is how I described his priorities regarding body and music:

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.

As far as I am concerned, Lang Lang was as detached from Chopin’s music as Brendel had been from Schubert’s.  The only difference was that the two pianists conveyed their detachment in different ways, neither of which benefitted the music very much.  To be fair, however, both of these pianists had to contend with grueling touring schedules.  The fact is that no performer can be “on” every time (s)he comes out on stage in front of an audience;  and, much as I dislike the proposition, I fear that both pianists are more interested in how they present themselves in Carnegie Hall or the Barbican Centre than in any impression they make in any city in California, even one with the musical legacy of San Francisco.

Since I have been watching Luck with great interest, let me turn to the racetrack for a closing metaphor.  Buying a ticket to a concert is a bit like placing a bet on a horse.  You can draw upon no end of “stocks of knowledge” in seeking out a bet that is likely to give you the best payoff;  but all those data can never tell you just what the horse will do after its gate opens.  Thus, those of us who write about concerts are in the same boat as sports writers covering the race after it has happened.  We can describe;  and, from time to time, we may even be able to apply some form of diagnostic thinking to our respective descriptive tasks.  However, we have to be very careful about evaluating, since we rarely know just what factors will be most relevant to making a sound evaluative decision.

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