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
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.