Pianist Lang Lang, the wunderkind now in the prime of his global career, enjoyed a sold-out house at MÜPA’s Béla Bartók Hall on Nov. 14, where he played a solo recital that pretty much rang true to the scuttlebutt bandied about him for years. Episodes of serious artistry were mixed with a somewhat alarming penchant for the kind of histrionics which harken back to the likes of Daniel Helfgott, if not Harpo Marx.
First the good stuff: his trenchant commitment to Liszt’s dark night of the soul in the Sonata in B minor — a piece too often programmed and rather inarticulately executed by a majority of pianists these days — demands an especially incisive interpreter who can demystify the many layers of mood swings and thematic references, all of which paint an affecting and often conflicted portrait of the composer as protagonist of his own drama.
Lang Lang succeeded here far beyond all of the hundreds of interpretations I’ve heard before. The sonata was delineated by a blissful mix of tender languor, improvisatory soul-searching, percussive punctuation of pivot-points and apexes of volcanic emotion, and powerful accentuation of the diabolical aspects. The reaction of the crowd was rightly explosive and reverential: we had just witnessed stunning pianistic genius.
Lang Lang also did well to program as his warm-up a divine Debussy “Ballade” that began out of nowhere and ended up somewhere just left of heavenly reverie. That set us up for the poetry to follow. And what poetry it was; in fact, it was so elegantly defined that I now feel spoiled for future listening because it felt like a benchmark of interpretation.
And now for the somewhat more questionable: his treatment of Albeniz’ somewhat quaint Spanish Suite, opus 47 was diffident and only occasionally attentive, as in the vibrant “Asturias” (widely played by guitarists) which demanded accurate sforzando flash chords in the nether regions. The comparatively more harmonically complex excerpts from Granados’ “Goyescas” opus 11 fared better; he milked the exotic scales and coloristic effects in in the deliciously programmatic “Quejas, a La Majay el ruisenor” (Complaint, or the Girl and the Nightingale) and demonstrated grand pianistic sweep in “Il Fandango de candil” (The Fandango of the Candle).
It was in his final piece, de Falla’s “Danza ritual del fuego” (Ritual Fire Dance) where he started to become a tad unhinged. Yes, there were lots of overwrought physical maneuvers for which he has become criticized over the years; but this time, however, it can be excused because all that theatricality quite appropriately reflected the macho flamenco hauteur that this piece so brilliantly depicts. What took me to shock level was his treatment of the first two of three three short encores: a forgettably poofy French idyll where he gazed at the audience as if to channel Liberace’s keyboard lounge act, and Gershwin’s jazzy Prelude No. 3 which he took at top speed — accuracy be damned — rendering it a mere wad of gum on the artistic bedpost.
This is where the other side of Lang Lang appears: he’s unquestionably a creature of show business, and that creature takes over because it can’t resist the opportunity. This kind of duality has been a debated issue throughout the decades, especially with the advent of Helfgott being advertised as a serious artist when basically he teases and encourages the crowd to register their thumbs-up delight in the middle of a piece he’s playing. Victor Borge managed to retain his deep-level musical artistry despite plenty of tomfoolery; and Igudesman & Joo carry on Borge’s tradition of mixing viruoso playing with clever satire. But Lang Lang, however, doesn’t do himself any favors by being a hybrid whose vaudvillian tricks and unmusical performance-practice choices serve to steal all the integrity he’s just demonstrated.
Lang Lang returns to Europe in March 2017, to play at the Il Teatro Comunale di Firenze in Italy, followed by dates in the UK, Germany and France. All dates and ticketing information can be found on his website .