Bach: Partita No 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825
Schubert: Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
Chopin: 12 Études, Op. 25
My last and probably most appreciated Mother’s Day gift was a ticket for Lang Lang’s recital at Carnegie Hall last Tuesday, which would also be my mum’s last night in the Big Apple. She has always had a special place in her heart for the superstar pianist after hearing him gloriously trailblaze though Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 several years ago in Washington, and I strongly suspect that the timing of her visit to New York City is not totally unrelated to his recital here this season.
My personal take on his indeniable skills is more ambivalent, so it was more curiosity at seeing him handle introspective works than endless admiration for his musicianship that made me sign us up for a program featuring Bach, Schubert and Chopin. The concert was, of course, sold out, even after adding 120 chairs on the stage, and a quick scan of the crowd proved without any doubt the incredibly wide-ranging appeal of the charismatic young musician. Now all he had to do was justify the hype.
Although I am much more familiar with Bach’s compositions for the violin than for the piano, I am also always happy to get pulled into a new musical adventure. Tackling Bach for the first time at Carnegie Hall has to be a milestone in any musician’s career and Lang Lang showed nothing but deep respect and informed love for the Partita No 1. It did not, however, translated into the most elating interpretation ever, largely because he did not always connect to the simple yet transcendental beauty that characterizes the German composer’s œuvre.
As Schubert’s health was rapidly deteriorating, it is hard to imagine that the prospect of death did not influence his last sonata. A deceptively grand scale composition, it is to me first and foremost the intimate journey of a man reflecting on life. While Lang Lang’s performance of it had plenty of praise-worthy moments, he also had a tendency to fall back on his amazing, yes, but not quite appropriate bag of technical tricks. The Andante, in particular, lost some of his introspective grace and occasionally became just another slow movement. From time to time I was finding myself wistfully trying to imagine what Mitsuko Uchida did with that very same sonata on that very same stage back in April.
Chopin’s Études are perhaps some of the most difficult pieces to play in the solo piano répertoire, but they’re also delightful little gems for the listener to savor. Much more comfortable in this new endeavor, Lang Lang could finally make full use of his exciting virtuosic chops and obviously did not even consider holding back from shamelessly dazzling the clearly adoring audience again and again and again. Those unique miniatures overflowing with poetry, drama, fleetness, thoughtfulness and more kept on popping up all over the place and were all truly remarkable, each on their own way. Performed with a solid dose of technical wizardry here and a discreet lightness of touch there, they came out the true winners of the evening.
The ovation was naturally long and fierce, which earned us two encores by Liszt, a flamboyant Romantic artist himself. It is therefore not surprising that some of his works appear so tailor-made for Lang Lang’s trademark passionate playing. The delicate “Romance” and the scintillating “Campanella” we got to hear on Tuesday night definitely qualify as the ultimate brilliant little goodies, substantial enough to stay in our memories, light enough not to over-shadow the concert. Conclusion: Two thumbs up for a crowd-pleasing performance by a genuinely gifted musician who keeps on getting better.