Lang Lang's recital at the Royal Festival Hall showed clearly what's made him a pianist of unrivalled celebrity and why he's yet to convince much of the musical fraternity. Technically, his playing is often stunning. However, there is a gulf between his dexterity and his interpretative gifts.
Much has been made of the young Chinese pianist's concert attire and his jacket, complete with sparkly pockets and lapels did, I'm afraid, rather set the tone. It took a long time for the audience to settle and their cameras didn't stop flashing until long after Lang Lang started playing. As it progressed, it seemed increasingly as though neither the majority of the audience nor the pianist they'd come to see was cut out for what had been programmed in the first half.
There was no denying the deftness of touch and astonishing fingerwork in Lang Lang's performance of Mozart's Sonata in B flat K.333 but his reluctance to let the music speak for itself made for a stop-start performance. He lingered and coaxed constantly and I quickly tired of his melodramatic stage manner: as he paused on passages he'd decided to milk, he looked around the audience, eyes half closed as if to entreat us to be as moved as he was. With the Mozart, I found Lang Lang's approach troublesome but at least here he seemed to have some idea that this was formally taut music, classically argued and therefore with only limited elasticity.
Unfortunately, the pianist seemed to have no such ideas about Schumann's Fantasie in C major Op.17. One of that composer's greatest works for piano, it was reduced to a shallow showpiece in a performance of disturbing vulgarity. It was an interpretation that seemed to have been dictated by Lang Lang's technique rather than musical considerations.
The opening was bashed out with tasteless, camp theatricality that bordered on parody and as for the second movement, Lang Lang seemed only intent on playing it as quickly as possible. In this performance, the piece was severed from its rhythmic and structural moorings; rather than being impetuous and driven, it seemed to just flap around in the swirling, unpredictable winds of Lang Lang's imagination. Throughout, themes were hammered out or lingered on for an eternity, inner parts were highlighted arbitrarily, and I'm afraid there was no being taken in at the affected rendition of the finale's opening, however much Lang Lang swayed and gestured. This was a painfully hollow and, despite the roller-coaster thrills of the second movement, boring experience.
The second half's 'collection of shorter pieces', as the programme rather euphemistically put it, found Lang Lang in far more suitable repertoire. He dazzled in 'six traditional Chinese works', which had been given anything but the traditional Chinese treatment; the third sounded for all the world like one of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. These were followed by Granados, full of swagger and virtuosity, where the pianist's rhythmic freedom was, at last, a virtue. I was starting to warm a little to his bravura until the final two numbers, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.6, preceded by his transcription of the 'Liebestod' from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This arrangement is respectful and more or less literal, but Lang Lang performed it as though it was one of Liszt's most vapidly bombastic operatic paraphrases. The result bore absolutely no relation to Wagner and had all the vulgarity and incoherence of the Schumann performance. He seemed equally at sea in the slower sections of the rhapsody, although the faster passages displayed, it has to be admitted, some of the most breathtaking virtuosity I've heard in a long while.
The concert was summed up by the first encore - Chopin's Study in E major Op.10 No.3 – probably the most infuriating four minutes I've ever spent in a concert hall. There was no sense of style, no understanding of rubato. On several occasions it almost ground to a halt (at one point, to such an extent that it allowed him time to clasp his breast melodramatically with his left hand); the central outbursts were played at twice the speed purely to offer opportunity for technical display.
Although Lang Lang's recent recording of Beethoven Piano Concertos was not ideal, there he seemed to be far better behaved under the watchful eye of Christophe Eschenbach. I only hope that he hasn't stopped seeking and listening to advice from those older statesmen of the keyboard with whom he's been associated. Although he's never going to want for fans, I'm looking forward to his interpretations catching up with his lightning-fast fingers.
By Hugo Shirley