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Review: Lang Lang Concert

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For all the hyperbolic publicity, Lang Lang really is an extraordinary pianist. And this manner of “hype” is certainly nothing new to classical music. It goes back at least to Liszt and Paganini. Supposedly the Romans had musical superstars. Certainly classical music can use all the heightened promotion it can get.

Performing at Santa Fe Opera in a concert hosted by the Santa Fe Concert Association, Lang Lang took the stage Monday evening for a traditional concert of Bach, Schubert and Chopin. Video screens were set up on both sides of stage assuring everyone a view of the pianist’s hands.

Inarguably Lang is a consummate technician capable of doing most anything he chooses. His execution is polished; his virtuosity sure-handed and seemingly effortless. Then the question becomes one of interpretation, and therein lies the rub.

The evening began with Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat. From the very first section it became clear that the style of the work was to take a backseat to Lang himself. While he clearly enjoys the work, his dynamics and tempo fluctuated wildly, tendencies more akin to a Romantic idiom but decidedly inappropriate to the late Baroque. The Sarabande became pure self-indulgence. What he no doubt intended to be ethereal was little more than superficial.

The Schubert Sonata (D. 960 in B-flat) sadly fared no better, riddled with affectation and artifice. Lang consistently employed the kind of clichés often endemic to young pianists mistaking predictable gestures for artistic sensibility. Pianissimos, for example, were all too precious, recurring with tedious frequency.

There was little differentiation between the first two movements, and given their length, the lack of contrast made them seem interminable. Nor could one see any elucidation of the work’s structure. The Scherzo initially began to bounce along but ultimately suffered from the same infirmities. Such milked sentimentalism may play to the crowd, but it does a particular disservice to the music itself.

The second half fared somewhat better. Exercises, for whatever instrument, tend not to be the most exciting music. Except, however, when from the hand of a master. Chopin’s Etudes Op. 25 provide a pianist not only with excellent training material but a wealth of gorgeous music, worthy for its own sake. Here, at least to some extent, Lang returned to the kind of explosive playing he exhibited last time in Santa Fe (a program of mostly Liszt). In many of the Etudes from this set sheer virtuosity sets interpretation to the background. The final two pieces (later nicknamed “Winter Wind” and “Ocean”) came leaping off the keyboard with thrilling ebullience. But the slower offerings suffered from the same aforementioned exegetic deficiencies. Given this particular program, there are far better interpreters performing today–and certainly on record. To employ a baseball metaphor, he is still a thrower not a pitcher. One hopes he will ultimately develop more than a blazing fastball.

The two unannounced encores were Traumerei (Dreaming) by Schumann and the Vivace from Chopin’s Op. 10 set of Etudes.