Lang Lang displays an interpretive depth beyond the glitz and fireworks

October 31, 2011 at 11:25 am

By Keith Powers

Lang Lang performed works of Bach, Schubert and Chopin Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall. Photo: Neale Haynes.

Everything was in place for the rock concert at Symphony Hall. A packed house of young fans, the T-shirt vendor in the lobby, the dark lighting in the hall with a hint of gold in the footlights.

But someone forgot to tell the star. Instead of a glitzy, pyrotechnical showcase, Lang Lang offered a tasteful recital of Bach, Schubert and Chopin Sunday afternoon in his Celebrity Series presentation —mostly skirting excess and extravagance but still filled with technical wizardry and interpretive integrity.

It’s convenient to deride Lang Lang for his extramusical accolades: his spot in Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” his Olympics appearance, the publicity barrage that precedes every concert.

But he’s earned the excess. His fame and technical ability are at a peak, and this recital proved that he still has musical insights to offer above mere speed and volume.

There was much to like about his performance of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B flat major. After some initial awkwardness in the Prelude and Allemande, his Sarabande showed a developed sense of rubato, loving but not overbearing. The two Minuets that followed sounded like real dances, not some stylized artifice of the form. He played like a good conductor directs, leading the way through a tricky work, providing insights with a climactic Gigue that was cheerful without being frivolous.

Lang Lang’s technical prowess earns him the right for interpretive extremes, which were on full display in his reading of the Schubert Sonata in B flat major, D.960. It’s doubtful anyone could play the first two movements any slower. Still, his fingering was flawless, and his intent on making the slow passages breath deeply never wavered. The Scherzo provided a much-needed energy lift, with the Allegro finale, once again bringing out the pianist’s individual approach to rubato.

Lang Lang didn’t change wardrobe at intermission but he did change pianos, switching to a darker Hamburg instrument for Chopin’s Op. 25 Etudes after a first half on Symphony Hall’s American Steinway.

There are few sets of virtuosic miniatures that so fully explore the range of pianistic possibilities, and the change of instruments seemed prescient. In each of the twelve etudes Lang Lang offered something interesting to think about, and several — the E minor and the succeeding G-sharp minor—were particularly illuminating.

Liszt’s O pourquoi donc romance and a bravura La campanella were among the encores. After his final bows, Lang Lang pumped his fist in victory like a sports hero as he exited the stage.

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