November 01, 2011

I'll sail upon the dog star

Reviewing Lang Lang.
Boston Globe, November 1, 2011.



It's interesting to me that even your positive comments seem couched in disclaimer-ly language. I think you're saying it's good that Lang Lang was "shameless" in "La Campanella," which would certainly be appropriate, but it could be read otherwise. Or, let's say, the praise doesn't exactly pop off the page. I'm honestly not sure if you think Hirschfeld Bach is a good thing.

I don't think anyone could disagree that the showstoppers are easier for Lang Lang to make a success with (though this may be partly because people aren't conditioned to expect anything profound from him), but it strikes me as admirable that he takes on the big sacred Schubert anyway. It's even possible that where you hear no paragraphs, he and others would. (This is why I could never write reviews; it's hard for me to assume that what I hear about a subjective experience can be stated so matter of factly, but I do appreciate that it's your job. No disrespect intended there. I didn't attend the recital, and I might well have agreed with you, as I love that piece and have very specific ideas and feelings about it.)

I guess it just seems to be that the poor guy is so polarizing (perhaps his own fault) that he can't just give a recital. He seems to me to be at the opposite of the PR spectrum from Hilary Hahn, who really cannot pull a negative word out of anyone. You'd think she just discovered Charles Ives from the recent press, even though excellent recordings of those sonatas have been available for years.

So, I guess I'm wondering, does it feel different to write a review about a polarizing figure (about whom Alex Ross recently tweeted "Say a prayer for the Schubert B-flat-major Sonata, which Lang Lang is playing in Newark tonight" to hearty laughs from the Twittersphere)?

I recently tweeted the following: "...but I enjoyed this BMInt review. Nice to read a review of Lang Lang w/out all the existential angst." My point isn't to put down your review (I had that reaction to the BMInt review before I read yours), but just to wonder what it's like to take on such a subject.


...reading my comment again, it was a little harsher (and more rambling) than I meant it to be. I really enjoyed your review which is eloquently written as always, and maybe it's strange to feel sorry for Lang Lang, but I just feel he's in such an odd position due to his reputation; whatever else you might think about him, he works hard and puts himself out there pretty honestly.

I was genuinely kind of surprised (pleasantly so) to read that BMInt review which just seemed to take Lang Lang on his own terms and not fret about who he is. I'm not saying all reviews should be glowing, star-struck tributes either; I just kind of felt that you almost had more positive to say than ended up coming out. The positive things about the Chopin, for example, were couched in the context of "showing off" and "spectacle," but I can see that to some degree, you were wrestling with the degree to which these are virtues. I notice you had nothing to say about the audience reaction.

I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that a pianist should show off - even in the revered Schubert 960, I'll bet the composer himself would be surprised at the degree to which we expect revelatory insight. I think it's sturdy enough music that its beauties aren't so elusive - and the last two movements have plenty of lighthearted, even flashy moments.

Matthew said...

Michael: Not harsh at all! And I would absolutely agree that I would rather hear Lang Lang show off in D. 960 than do what he did, which is make it detached and careful and boring (which is exactly what he did to D. 959 when I heard him a couple of years ago). I think those late Schubert sonatas do demand (and I don't think this is mutually exclusive with some pianistic showboating) to be approached with a certain amount of respect, at least in having a plan to communicate the overall structure. I like several versions of D. 960, but Schnabel's is a good example of this kind of thing—the way he makes the shift from the trill at the end of the opening statement of the theme to that theme's immediate variation sets up a bit of structural tension that he keeps building on until the recap's payoff. Lang's performance didn't have any of that sort of thing going on—moment to moment it was impressive in its control, but the phrases really didn't connect into any larger vector. (It didn't help that he was doing a rallentando on virtually every change of dynamic.) Having heard that D. 959, I was able to sort of shrug off this D. 960 with mild disappointment, but, interestingly, my wife got quite angry about it, on the grounds that, if you're going to program late Schubert, you have a certain responsibility to put in the time, effort, and imagination to do it right. (The singer/accompanist equivalent of this might be, say, Dichterliebe—doing bad Fauré is just unfortunate, but doing a half-assed Dichterliebe feels criminal, in a way.)

My feeling about showing off and shamelessness is that I'm all for it, as long as you can pull it off (which Lang can, in spades). The "La campanella" really was quite startling in its unabashedness—I mean, when I'm considering a performance of Lizst to be kind of blasphemous, I figure that the Envelope is Being Pushed. But everything I said about the Chopin was absolutely sincere. It was tremendously showy, but that seems to be when Lang most taps into his creativity.

Believe it or not, the Schubert get a standing ovation, which astonished me enough to initially consider writing about it as well. But I don't think being a scold on the audience is a good way to use the 400 words I get—I try not to begrudge anybody having a good time with Schubert—so I try instead to describe my own impression of the experience as accurately as I can. One thing about that angst regarding his celebrity: both times I've reviewed Lang, I went in with the mindset that I wasn't going to talk about his celebrity at all, but really, the concert experience itself makes that impossible. The body language, the piano-switching, the choreography he uses both playing and bowing (not to mention the t-shirts), all of it is reinforcing the star aspect of his career. If you want to give an accurate impression of the concert, you pretty much have to talk about it.