Back in the noughties, piano cognoscenti liked to trash the Chinese piano phenom Lang Lang. The late, lamented Earl Wild once called him “the J. Lo of the piano,” and then there’s his nickname, “Bang Bang.” Critics slammed him for playing everything with the same empty virtuosity and clangorous percussiveness, and for relying on hammy swoons, grimaces, and hairstyles to disguise his supposed lack of genuine musicality.
Nowadays, critics generally say that he’s “steadily maturing” as an artist. Still, when he took the stage last night with the New York Philharmonic, having abandoned his spiky hairdo for a smooth emo look, he couldn’t help but remind me of someone even more famous:
OMG!!!!! Justin Bieber plays piano!!!!!
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Tommasini’s review of Lang Lang’s appearances with the Philharmonic, playing Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto, concurred with the “steadily maturing” idea: “joyous and smart,” he wrote, “voiced with care,” “intensely focused,” “beguilingly simple and sensitive.” (For those who don’t glean much from these phrases, Norman Lebrecht applies his red pen to Tommasini’s adverbs here.) We weren’t ready to call the pianist “Bang Bang” until hearing him live, but we did come in biased, having recently heard a beautifully nuanced performance of the Bartók by András Schiff (reviewed here).
The flamboyant Bartók suits Lang Lang’s temperament better than, say, Mendelssohn. Pianists need muscle just to get through the piece, and he delivered the goods. Only toward the very end of the breakneck last movement, the duet between piano and timpani, did Lang Lang’s tone cross the line from brilliance to white noise, sounding pitchless and, well, bangy. Belying his reputation for rhythmic stiffness, he applied ample ritards at cadences. We missed, however, Schiff’s nuances of timing, accent, and voicing within the phrase. Overall, we did not begrudge Lang Lang his celebrity, even as we recalled more subtle performances of the work.
Played before the Bartók, Magnus Lindberg’s Feria is a grinding romp thick in textures and unapologetic dissonance. Taking inspiration from Spanish outdoor festivals, it contains references to Petrushka and an apotheosis drawing upon the opening phrase of Arianna’s lament. The strength of the piece lies, I suspect, in its form, which didn’t make itself obvious to the listener but was felt like a reassuring presence – a native Barcelonian taking us through the fair. Still, the 17-minute piece was so thickly orchestrated that I was wishing for a breather some 10 minutes in. Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, in the second half, provided much more timbral and dynamic contrast.
The Fifth Symphony contains all of Prokofiev’s humor and vibrant energy, bordering on the manic. Some have argued that the Fifth transforms this ebullience into grotesquerie and brutality, belying its apparently cheerful exterior. On this reading, the composer’s description–“In the Fifth Symphony I wanted to sing the praises of the free and happy man–his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul”–is just a cover. Gilbert’s interpretation seemed to adopt this reading of the work, emphasizing its force and forward momentum.
If Gilbert ever has a chance to compile a “best of” album, perhaps it should consist of last movements of symphonies. Last night was not the first time I felt that it took him most of the work to get going. The lyrical yet massive themes of the first movement were beautiful, but at times thick and noisy. The hilarious second movement had everything in place (including the dazzling musicianship of Ricardo Morales, principal clarinet), but I would have liked more spontaneity, more madness. By the time we got to the adagio, with its intersecting web of long phrases, I was back in youth symphony, feeling the sound wash over me while I honked my horn to the end. Gilbert’s quick tempo rarely gave the music room to expand.
Gilbert rallied for the last movement, and finished with pizzazz. Who wouldn’t get carried away? Especially the marching-band-on-speed effect of the last few minutes, which draws us inward when it shifts to a handful of strings, percussion, and a honking low trumpet, then surges back for a sucker punch.
For a very different reading, here’s some old footage of the great Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the second movement–with some propaganda overlay.