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Friday, June 1, 2012

Concert Review: The Return of the Flash

Lang Lang at Carnegie Hall.
Lang Lang. Photo by Felix Broede for Deutsche Grammophon. © 2011 Universal Classics.
The pianist Lang Lang is a formidable talent. At Tuesday night's recital at Carnegie Hall, the last major subscription concert of the 2012 season, Mr. Lang gave a performance that favored style over musical substance.

Mr. Lang has made no secret of his idolization of Franz Liszt, even releasing a Sony collection called My Piano Hero. His playing is not just Lisztian in its prodigious technical ability--he also incorporates a free-form, Romantic approach to tempo and structure. Here, he offered works Bach, Schubert and Chopin. While the written notes were always played, this concert seemed to err, if it can be said, on the side of virtuosity.

The evening opened with a late piece by Johann Sebastian Bach: the Partita No. 1 in B Flat. In each of its dance movements, Bach's musical phrases were played long and slow or compressed into tight bullets of sound. The fastest dance movements were played at impressive speed, and the famous, slow Sarabande received an extra dose of lento. In the closing Gigue, the playful, recursive figures were precisely rendered but had little depth. 

Schubert's final sonata, also in B flat, is one of the composer's last works, a heart-rending struggle between oncoming death (represented by a deep rumble in the low octave of the piano) and a fierce, heroic theme that eventually triumphs.  In Mr. Lang's interpretation, there were some lovely turns of phrase, as the soloist revealed Schubert's ability to create orchestral sounds when writing for the keyboard. The grand heroic gestures of the first movement were distorted and blurred, the final movement's triumph coming at a hellacious speed.

The second half of the program featured Chopin's twelve Op. 25 Etudes, works that are among the Polish composer's most challenging creations for the keyboard. Chopin uses the etude (a piece created to study a certain musical idea, concept or phrase) into a contrasting cycle of emotions, from the bells that open the first work in the cycle to the astonishing, difficult sixth movement. This drew a shouted "Bravo!" from the house.

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The interruption seemed to encourage the artist as he veered into the slow Seventh Etude and prepared to do battle with the Eighth. This led to some astonishing displays of bravura playing and piano mannerisms, appreciated by the lucky audience members seated onstage and carefully captured by the team of videographers documenting the concert. As the Twelfth Etude ("The Ocean") approached, Mr. Lang seemed to play more and more to the cameras, closing his eyes in a mystic, Liszt-like trance, bringing his left hand heavily down on the bass keys, and posing over the Steinway like a praying mantis about to strike.

The encore, pairing Liszt's Romance in G minor, a lesser known, slow example of the composer's output, with La Campanella, a famous example of the Transcendental Etudes based on Paganini. seemed better suited to his abilities. Once again, Mr. Lang mugged for the cameras, holding the high-end trill with an almost cruel glance at the audience, the alarum sounds played as loudly as possible.
That's show biz. 
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.