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You saw him center stage at the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing. His YouTube videos generate more views than some Billboard Top 100 artists. His record label Deutsche Gramophone headlines him as nothing less than “the future of classical music”.
After a whirlwind of high-profile concerto engagements and an international recital tour brought some critics to dub 2008 the “Year of Lang Lang,” Chinese pianist turned classical music rockstar Lang Lang had a tall order to fill at this past Sunday’s Symphony Hall solo recital, a presentation of the Celebrity Series of Boston. His performance, which fused musical mastery with a hearty dose of his characteristic flair for the dramatic, proved all of the hype about him was well justified.
Settling himself at the Steinway concert piano, Lang opened with a poetic rendition of Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major, D. 959. In the first movement, the interplay of soprano and tenor voices created a chorus of classical lines that conveyed a dialogue of teasing questions and indignant retorts. Raising a finger to his lips as if to silence the piano, Lang Lang physically signaled the dreamy transition into a barcarolle-like segment, which he executed with seamless tempo changes and delightful subito pianos. The distorted, showy embellishments critics have used to label Lang as a talented but immature pianist were completely absent from this piece, for Lang’s use of rubato was liberal but never stretched to the point of mannerism. The pianist swept the sonata to a climactic end with a flurry of majestic octaves and runs.
Lang next plunged into an aggressive performance of Béla Bartók’s Piano Sonata, Sz. 80 that was almost terrifying in its technical execution. Harnessing the Steinway to produce a resounding bass undertone that pianists with a lighter touch so often lose, Lang beckoned us into the heat of Bartók’s chordal battle. After a virtuosic passage that unabashedly showcased the percussive capabilities and dissonant tones of the instrument, a plaintive melody, influenced by Bartók’s roots in folk music, resolved the chaos. Jerking out of this harmonic respite, Lang coaxed the coda from a steady trot of sharp staccatos into a thunderous gallop of arpeggiated exclamations.
Lang transitioned flawlessly from the mad chaos of Bartók to the nuanced subtlety of the French impressionistic style with a few selections from Claude Debussy’s Preludes. It was these simple tone poems, not the virtuosic heavyweights that usually dominate any performer’s repertoire, which revealed the musical genius behind Lang’s commercial success. His interpretation of Debussy’s popular melody “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” was ethereal but never flighty, thanks to his delicate yet pointed approach to the keyboard. Closing his eyes for most of the preludes, Lang occasionally tore himself from his musical trance to look towards the audience, as if to ensure that they too could visualize the serenity of a pond in Giverny straight out of a Monet painting. Lang’s rendition of “Fireworks,” the brilliant closing prelude, obviously displayed his technical facility, but his command of a remarkably flexible tonal palette deserved the most attention. The preludes, which became an amalgam of musical reflections under Lang’s touch, proved that while Lang sometimes employs frivolous shows of technique to draw in his audience, the thought and soul within his playing truly captivates listeners.
With the crowd already coming to its feet, Lang jumped into Chopin’s “Heroique” Polonaise No. 6 in A-flat Major, his final number. The treacherous double thirds at the beginning were no obstacle to the pianist, who zipped through the chromatic introduction to settle into the stately main theme. In the military march, accented with crisp dotted rhythms and a precise backdrop of octaves, Lang brought out Chopin’s desire to incite Polish patriotism, though the pianist adopted a much faster tempo than is customary.
In appreciation for the double curtain calls after every piece and the standing ovation at the end of the recital, Lang played Chopin’s delightful Etude, Opus 10, No. 3 as an encore. Again, the tempo was alarmingly fast at times and may have been objectionable to some sticklers to the classical tradition, but Lang’s spin on a Chopin standard was refreshingly quirky.
The only thing missing from Lang’s Symphony Hall program was a performance of a piece by Franz Liszt, a composer and pianist with a flamboyant style who is seen as a forbearer to Lang. Lang’s romantic, rhapsodic, and showy interpretations of Liszt’s compositions are particularly acclaimed. In the 19th century, women reportedly swooned in response to Liszt’s dramatic performances and threw their handkerchiefs onto the stage in passionate admiration. No one fainted at Symphony Hall on Sunday, but Lang’s masterful playing and impeccable style has not gone unnoticed by the general public.
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