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S & H Recital Review

Haydn, Rachmaninov, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Balakirev. Lang Lang (piano). Wigmore Hall, Tuesday November 27th, 2001 (CC)

When it was first released, I gave Lang Lang’s debut disc (Telarc CD-80524) a positive review that highlighted the more sensitive side of this young pianist’s persona. His Wigmore debut was an eagerly awaited event (the place was packed out) and was recorded by it largely confirmed the impressions given by that disc and certainly gave much pleasure and delight.

In an interview with Marc Bridle, Lang Lang stated that he had heard the Wigmore Hall was one with great acoustics. He was cautioned not to over-project, counsel he wisely heeded (at least most of the time). There were a couple of instances in an otherwise delightful account of Haydn’s Sonata in E, Hob. HVI:31, where Lang Lang was on the brink of overdoing the fortes, but in general they did not detract from the overall impression of a considered reading that caught the various sides of Haydn’s personality well. There was charm and wit in abundance in the outer movements (as well as delicacy and, always, clarity), but it was in the central Allegretto that Lang Lang attained an almost Bachian purity (concurrently drawing silence from his audience).

Lang Lang obviously enjoys the experience of live performance. His decision to play the opening gesture of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata before the applause had died down was arresting. He unleashed a torrent of sound (not an entirely accurate one, it has to be admitted), but his account also included almost Ravelian washes of sonority. The fortes really did get overbearing at times, (I felt for the ears of the people in the front row!). The finale was characterised by big gestures (‘schwung’ is the term which comes to mind), amazing dynamic control over his instrument and a real virtuoso climax to finish with. Surprisingly, perhaps, he found the second movement most difficult: it tended towards the diffuse, before finally settling down. Overall, though, Lang Lang’s sense of the dramatic structure of this piece made for a reading which was clearly memorable: his choice of the tauter 1931 revision of this sonata clearly helps matters. There was one slightly disturbing trait that was to recur periodically later in the recital: he does not clear his final chords cleanly sometimes, a messy sound which is surely uncharacteristic of this pianist.

After the interval, Lang Lang seemed to take time to adjust to the world of late Brahms (the Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118). When reviewing his CD, I had singled out his voice-leading as particularly worthy of mention. It was surprising, therefore, to find that some voices were submerged in the wash of sound of Op. 118 No. 1, and there were bumpy accents in the lullaby-like No. 2 (the ‘teneramente’ marking looked far away). Again, important voice-leading was either ignored or under-played. Even the opening of the G minor Ballade was not entirely clear, and the overall impression was robust but perhaps a little unsubtle. After a playful F minor Intermezzo (played with little pedal to achieve a ghostly effect), Lang Lang found form again with a rich and now beautifully voiced Romance in F. The middle section was pure magic, invoking pastoral piping. Of course the last of this set, No. 6 in E flat minor, goes to a different world and this really brought out Lang Lang’s best. From an opening shrouded in mystery came a reading full of fantasy, an imposing middle section and a beautifully timed final arpeggiation.

The two Tchaikovsky pieces saw Lang Lang really enjoying himself. The Op. 59 Dumka began as if he was doodling, progressing to a reading dripping in character (the jaw-dropping octaves are particularly worthy of mention here). The C Sharp minor Nocturne, Op. 19 No. 4, Russian Chopin in all but name, was given a supremely sensitive performance, including some magical pianissimos. They were much more than warm-ups for Balakirev’s dazzling Islamey. Sparks flew in this virtuoso show piece and Lang Lang’s refusal to over-pedal meant that every note could be heard. Whilst he seemed to relish the technical challenges this piece contains, even the most virtuosic passages were intrinsically musical. Certainly the sound threatened to overwhelm at various points, but then this is not a piece which encourages half-measures. A most memorable evening which presented a pianist to keep one’s eyes and ears on. His development will be fascinating.

Colin Clarke

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