Hilbert Circle Theatre; Nov. 22
Lang Lang may well be at the pinnacle of the new crop of top-tiered virtuoso pianists who have made the "big time," touring the world, playing to sold out houses and charging "gi-normous" fees. In hearing this 29-year-old Chinese native play the solo part in Beethoven's First Piano Concerto, encored by the all-too-often-presented Liszt/Paganini "La Campanella," I decided that what he could make his fingers do on the keyboard was stunning -- unapproachable by 99% of his fellow piano professionals (which still leaves a few). And therein lies a bit of a dilemma.
Tuesday's ISO concert was a special -- created for Lang Lang's appearance, a one-time event which packed the Circle Theatre without quite selling it out. (Interestingly the hall was more filled for ISO music director Krzyzstof Urbański's most recent appearance a couple months ago for Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.) Guest conductor Christoph Campestrini returned from the previous weekend to lead the orchestra in an all-Beethoven program. But first let's get back to our star:
For the great mass of pianists playing at any expected level, it is difficult enough to hit all the notes right -- to be technically correct. Above a certain excellence threshold, notes are not a problem, but interpretive vision can be. For me, the most rewarding keyboard artists to savor are those with top-notch technique and a broad sensitivity to the playing style suggested by the keyboard composer and the musical tastes related to the era in which he lived. If the music is great, these people make it "pour" out of their fingers and into my emotional center for a truly rewarding, sometimes gut-wrenching experience. Lang Lang failed to make the connection for me, especially in the Beethoven. Why?
Those achieving this exalted technical level are often moved to create their own style -- their "trademark"--and it includes something they can do which most others can't. And they apply it to music of any period, written in any style. In Lang Lang's case it is the ability to handle the most difficult passage and scale work softly, yet render each note audible, even while liberally applying the pedal.
Practically all the "runs" and figurations we heard in all three Beethoven movements were rendered in this way, often with a reduced-from-normal tempo. Every now and then, we had an explosive outburst of superhuman speed and maximum loudness. Lang Lang exaggerates to the nth degree every extreme suggested by the score -- because he can and others can't.
Even in "La Campanella," where we had Lang Lang's solo prowess on display, it was the most exaggerated performance I've ever heard, yet one which most players couldn't duplicate if they wanted to. There's also a bit of the showman in this young pianistic genius, Lang Lang often staring upward in exalting rapture, as though to draw sustenance from the void above. Given the hype surrounding his world-wide public acclaim, he mesmerizes his audiences even before he plays a note. (Interested listeners are encouraged to compare his "Campanella" on YouTube with a few other pianistic elites of his generation, including Valentina Lisitsa, who performed here a month ago.)
Compestrini continued the high-level podium artistry we heard over the preceding weekend with Beethoven's Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 and his rousing Symphony No. 7 in A, Op. 92. But despite my caveats, Lang Lang's appearance dominated the evening.