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Whatever has happened to Lang Lang? Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Liszt/Horowitz Lang Lang (piano), RFH, 3.30pm, Sunday, January 23rd, 2005 (CC)

There was a time that a recital by Lang Lang excited the emotions for all the right reasons. Here, it appeared, was a great talent with a penchant for raising the rafters but who nevertheless could produce meltingly beautiful results, too. (See my review of his Wigmore debut, for example.)

Since those early days, Lang Lang (still in his early twenties) has evidently gathered a huge following. How else could he pack out the Festival Hall on a Sunday afternoon? Yet the Mozart that began this recital (C major, K330, a brave choice in itself given the intimacy this music demands) was harsh (fortes could be uncomfortable) with stabbed-at accents and badly weighted chords to close the first movement. Lang Lang failed to get inside the slow movement; the return of the opening exemplified the problems perfectly. The three-quavered anacrusis figure led to a first beat that was woefully over-emphasised. Again, the Allegretto finale was harsh rather than jaunty, with machine-gun left-hand staccati.

So to Chopin’s great, and interpretatively problematical, Third Sonata. Lang Lang’s pedal technique impresses – he uses it for colour, but does not smudge. Yet the second subject should flow more (there was more than a touch of lumpiness). By now I was hankering after the majesty of a Pollini or the super-sensitivity of an Uchida. Lang Lang actually lost his sense of harmonic direction at one point, leaving Chopin sounding as if he was the one at fault. Lang Lang the mercurial was certainly present and correct in the Scherzo, but contrasts here were simply indulgent. Whereas Uchida is magical in the Largo, Lang Lang is merely competent (well, usually – there was some clumsy voicing there too). Undeniably exciting at its close, the coda of the finale was simply not enough to erase memories of the miscalculations that preceded it.

Post-interval Schumann was on the menu – Kinderszenen. Lang Lang writes in his introduction to the concert that “You need to play it as if you’re getting old and trying to remember your youth.” Not for Lang Lang, then, you might think, and you would be right. Over-projected top lines (right from the very start) and a tone that could become metallic all too easily (‘Ritter vom Steckenpferd’) distracted from the Schumannesque impulse, while any extended passage of Innigkeit found Lang Lang merely meandering.

An impressive (at last!) Rachmaninov B flat Prelude from Op. 23 led to a disappointingly lukewarm G minor (Op. 23 No. 5). Lang Lang used them as a bridge to the Liszt, hardly giving these two short pieces their due.

At least Lang Lang’s sense of line improved as the Sonetta 104 del Petrarcha unfolded, and the end did tend towards the magical. But it is the Hungarian Rhapsodies that finds this pianist most at home, especially when given an extra layer in a Horowitz transcription. No. 2 in C sharp minor was the case in point here, and included a magnificent cimbalom impression, remarkable repeated notes and a great sense of fun.

Of course there were encores, but only two. A piece I believe to be called ‘Moon on Lake’ (it could be ‘Moon and Lake’) was lovely, oriental with lots of Debussy sauce; Rachmaninov’s transcription of ‘The Flight of the Bumble Bee’ was the stuff Lang Lang must devour for breakfast.


But I left the RFH with a rather empty feeling. Can we have the old Lang Lang back, please?

Colin Clarke

Further listening:

Chopin: Pollini, DG 415 346-2




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