Schubert, Bartok and Chopin

Lang Lang

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 6 April 2009 4 stars

Lang Lang

An armada of secret service agents, trailing the President of the United States and all the Heads of State of the NATO Alliance, and 18,000 policemen drafted from all over Germany to line the streets, was to descend on Baden-Baden, this somnolent and peaceful town, within shouting distance of France, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of NATO.

The very heart of the town, always spotlessly clean and appetising, had been virtually disinfected in recent days, and on the fateful day of the meeting the 150 residents who happen to live in the hermetically closed central area will be allowed to walk their dogs only in the company of a uniformed policeman.

A more peaceful and, to my mind more meaningful demonstration of goodwill, and cultural values by more than 10,000 ticketbuying burghers, occupied the Festspielhaus to witness superb performances by Lang Lang, Hilary Hahn, an excellent young German cellist, Marie-Elisabeth Hecker, and a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, given by the Orchestre National de France, led by that epitome of dignity, supreme musicianship and great human qualities, Kurt Masur, and all this within a single week!

It may have been only partially due to meretricious and tasteless promotion that Lang Lang has become a popstar. For a long period he himself was ready to pose as a popstar and celebrity entertainer, using his truly phenomenal pianistic skills more as a musical acrobat than an inspired musician reaching out to the spheres of a Pollini, a Schiff or a Brendel. It has become in recent years fashionable in the world of elitist criticism to question the validity of his commitment to serious classical music, and to harp increasingly on the oddities of his body language, his apparel, and his eagerness to combine his worldwide notoriety with the interests of the producers of his recordings and his management. Even his website appeared to be more concerned with selling records and Adidas trainers than emphasising the serious side of his music making - though it was never absent, only cloaked in vulgarity.

Since the publication of his autobiography, one knows now that he has become aware of having been caught in the trap of ruthless promotion. His painfully honest revelation of his tragic childhood, the insensitive and suffocating exploitation of his talents by his parents, explains plainly the excesses during his long fight to liberate himself from this parental abuse. His almost passionate engagement now all over the world to further the teaching of classical music, and his concern for improving the status and chances of musicians at the beginning of their carreers, merit praise in a man still so young.

Lang LangThat he is now managing to shake off the more flippant side of his artistic personality was obvious from the moment he faced the packed house in this Baden-Baden Festspielhaus recital.

The programme he selected for a tour of two continents, with some dozen recitals, alone showed that he wanted to free himself from just showing off his technical ability. His body language is not yet completely free from some excentricities, but that does not disqualify him as a pretender for greatness.

The monumental A Major Sonata by Schubert allowed him to demonstrate that he had totally immersed himself in that world of despair and melancholy, occasional delightful episodes of hope only dashed by the tragedy of realities. I felt it touching how he appeared to be mesmerized by the greatness of that music. His ability to conjure up colours from that superb and proud Steinway, adding almost inaudible pianissimi to three Ps marked in the score, his wild and fearless octave runs, his flickering runs, faster than one thinks human hands can produce, persuaded me to surrender myself to sharing the emotions he so visibly displayed. And when at the end he threw up his arms in a gesture of exaltation, I was tempted to do the same.

To show another side of his art, he gave beautifully contrasting performances of Bartok's percussive Piano Sonata of 1926 (using a score, as Bartok himself used to when performing this work) and seven Debussy preludes, each one painted in irridescent colours, displaying a subtlety and imagination of touch that often filled me with that familiar tightening of my throat in admiration and gratitude. Only to end his recital did he allow himself to give a taste of the old and familiar Lang Lang in a thunderous Chopin Polonaise in A Flat major, Op. 53.

There is some curiously intimate relationship between him and the piano - sometimes he seems almost to be caressing the keys, or can punish them with ferocious power. At the end of the performance, responding to an ecstatic reception by the audience, and receiving a bouquet of roses from the House, he plucked a rose and placed it on the piano, gently tapping the sides of the Steinway, like one pats the shanks of a loved horse after an exhausting ride.

By Francis Shelton

Photos: Andrea Kremper


Lang LangRelated articles:

Review of Lang Lang at the Royal Festival Hall, November 2007
Review of Lang Lang's new recording of Chopin concertos
Hélène Grimaud plays Beethoven at the Edinburgh Festival 2008
Chamber Orchestra of Europe with Andras Shiff in Dublin, 2008

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