Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata in B-flat Major, K.333
Robert Schumann: Fantasy in C Major, Opus 17
Lang Lang: Five Chinese Songs
Enrique Granados: Los Requiebros, from Goyescas, Book I
Franz Liszt: Isolde’s Liebestod – Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 in D-flat Major
Lang Lang (piano)
To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was the best of tunes, it was the worst of tunes. It was the Lang Lang phenomena. As a socio-cultural experience, it was indeed phenomenal. Girls outside Carnegie Hall were holding grand bouquets, to hand him upon the finish. Crowds gathered with signs begging for a ticket, since the Issac Stern Auditorium was packed to the highest balconies, as well as the stage itself. The artiste would be in a salon for 30 minutes after the concert, but would sign only the recording of his The Magic of Lang Lang.
And when the 25-year-old wonder-kid from North China came on stage dressed in black, bowing and clasping hands Chinese style, the audience was already standing in adulation.
That was one phenomenon. The other, naturally, was Lang Lang the musician. And that cannot be described exactly in musical terms.
First, the extraordinary news. The young man has technique to spare—and he sure knows it. The music of the second half was more than the bravura variety. Every measure seemed to shout out: “Bravo! Bis! Encore!”
Did he take the cadenza of his only encore, Liszt’s Liebestraum the very loudest and fastest he could? Indeed! Did he turn the last measures of the Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody into a zillion notes at one time? Naturally! Did he dazzle us with swooning body language, conducting his own music when he had a few seconds when the left hand was not on the keyboard? Oh, yes.
But was it impressive? Absolutely! Lang Lang can fly on the trapeze without a safety net often than not, spreading out the rhythms, yet never losing the electric pulse, even making the most simple music sound profound. Could he take an utterly charming Granados Goyesca and turn it into the apotheosis of Spanish dance? With ease, with careless grace.
Playing his own arrangements, Lang Lang did to Chinese tunes what Bela Bartók did with his variations on Hungarian music. He broadened a simple look at moonlight into a Chopin (or at least John Field) nocturne, transformed a little dance into a tango, and seemingly improvised the other tunes. They were recognizable to Lang Lang’s sophisticated countrymen and women in the audience, but might have confused the folk back home.
On the bright side, though, many here came not to hear Granados, Liszt or Mozart. They came to hear Lang Lang.
And now the bad news. While his Mozart Sonata was very graceful, the slow movement extremely delicate, this was Mozart the ultra-Romantic. And that could have been accepted, except to those who know Brendel, and Gieseking, and Haskill.
But the C Major Fantasy was Robert Schumann arranged by Lang Lang, and I had to go to my own copy to check if any of his ten-second pauses at all the climaxes were even hinted at in the text. This was not simply Romantic music, it was glutinous. He pulled out the notes as if in agony, turned the second half of the second movement into Tchaikovsky-like reverie. And that idyllic last movement, in which Schumann pleads that it remain soft and even, Lang Lang piled high the emotions.
Nothing is more touching in this Schumann’s love-letter to his wife, than the beautiful transition from C Major slow arpeggios to arpeggios in A-flat. The score goes directly to this transition, changing only “soft” to “very soft”. Lang Lang, though, did his trick of simply stopping the piano—for five seconds—and then making the change. It lost Schumann, it lost me, and alas, it lost Lang Lang.
He still has super-human fingers, he has poetry to spare, and his ideals are as sincere as his talent. But some day, hopefully, a Brendel, or a Barenboim, or a Perahia should sit him down and tell him that the music was written to be interpreted, not deconstructed.
At that point, Lang Lang could become not a miracle or a genius, but a great pianist.