Lang Lang gets mixed reception in Bordeaux

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 18.11.2015

The Chinese piano sensation Lang Lang left his Bordeaux audience somewhat nonplussed Tuesday night (Nov. 17) by opening his recital with 45 minutes of shallow salon music, Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons”. The packed Auditorium had expected the usual Lang Lang Show, blinding fingerwork, dramatic sweeps of the hands and arms, winks at the audience, eye makeup, hair.

“The Seasons” has it moments of virtuosity but is largely simplified mood music intended for girls of the old St. Petersburg bourgeoisie, most of whom played the piano.  Lang treated it lightly. There was no scope for his flashy skills as a performer. It’s a mystery why he chose to lead off with it. Bordeaux is not that provincial.

Lang Lang as seen by the author, Michael Johnson.

The twelve pieces originally appeared monthly in 1876 in a magazine that commissioned them for its snobbish audience.  Evocatively named (“By the Hearth”, “Snowdrop”, “The Harvest”, ”On the Troika”, etc.) the music does not attempt a literal depiction of such scenes. The contrasting moods are fragmented and, to me at least, lack coherence, perhaps due to deadline pressures of magazine publication. Lang Lang seemed to be elsewhere as he played it.

He followed up with a workmanlike reading of Bach’s “Italian Concerto” (also known as “Concerto in the Italian Style”) a staple of the recital platform and a safe choice for any performer. Again, Lang Lang seemed to be in prudent mode attacking a piece he has played countless times. Yes, he played it to perfection but in this performance he lacked a sense of soul.

It was only after intermission that he came storming back with works more suited to his persona. Chopin’s “Four Scherzos” fairly erupted from the Steinway as he dug into the brilliance and restlessness Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20. The music is marked “presto co fuoco” and Lang Lang gave it everything – articulation, tone and a lot of momentum.

No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31 is generally recognized as the best of the lot. Schumann wrote that it bursts with “tenderness, boldness, love and contempt”, a challenge that Lang Lang dispatched without apparent effort. No. 3 recalls Liszt in its opening pages, loaded with energy and virtuoso turns. And No 4 is a thing of beauty, also rendered artfully in Lang Lang’s capable hands.

Unfortunately, Lang Lang’s self-indulgent stage behavior sometimes distracts from the music he professes to adore. In his early career, such excesses were often excused as youthful exuberance but now at 33 it feels more like showmanship and it is becoming more exaggerated with each passing year.

To his credit, he made a short talk in English lamenting the terrorist attacks in Paris three days earlier and asked for a minute of silence. The audience stood in respect of the victims. Public gatherings in France, including for this recital, are being subjected to enhanced security measures in the terrorist aftermath.

Lang Lang’s superstar aura was an auspicious opening for this sixth edition of Bordeaux’s Esprit du Piano festival. Past years have seen an uneven ranking of piano professionals but this year with Lang Lang and the Russian virtuoso Arkadi Volodos on the program, the event has started attracting world class talent.


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