Monday, 2 December 2013


Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (30 November 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 December 2013 with the title "Lang Lang plays by his own rules".

Ever since his meteoric rise to fame and fortune over the last dozen years, Chinese pianist Lang Lang has polarised opinion among audiences and critics. One either adores or loathes him, but what is undeniable is his drawing power and ability to work a crowd.

Such was the gift of late classical superstars like pianist Vladimir Horowitz and tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who had their fair share of supporters and detractors. Lang’s solo recital, his second in Singapore, would provide more points of contention.

The many faces of Lang Lang.

The choice of three Mozart sonatas on a trot was unusual, and he was on his best behaviour. Well almost. In the early G major (K.283) and E flat major (K.282) sonatas, he coaxed a lovely cantabile aided by generous pedalling, which flowed like oil. By contrast, the dramatic A minor sonata (K.310) was driven with sheer single-mindedness, capped by a thrilling development to boot.

His tendency to linger in the slow movements and then race ahead in the finales highlighted extremes in contrasts. Exaggerating accents and phrases in unexpected places were ear-catching for certain, providing the twists and turns one would expect in a roller-coaster. At least these finales were well characterised, joyous in K.283, by turn comedic in K.282, and breathlessly urgent in K.310.

One marvelled at how relaxed and composed Lang was. He literally strolled on stage, raising his hands in acknowledgement of the audience, including those seated back in the choir gallery. He played seated far from the keyboard and leaned backwards a lot. His free hand would theatrically command a life of its own, as if conducting an imaginary orchestra in the air. Piano playing was without doubt another form of show business. 

Chopin’s Four Ballades was fertile ground for more show-boating. Ballade No.1 swung like a pendulum between dawdling protractedness and furious prestidigitation. His facility to do as he pleased was the most striking feature. Much better were the middle pieces, the contrasts in Ballade No.2 were perfectly judged while the inner voices of Ballade No.3 were wonderfully realised.

Ballade No.4, arguably Chopin’s greatest essay, was a mirror image of the first. However the slow and gradual build-up had a purpose; the coda unwound furiously like a coiled spring for a brilliant grandstanding close. The audience erupted in feverish frenzy and a standing ovation, no doubt further stoked by two encores, played ridiculously fast.

What a standing ovation looks like.

Sebastian Vettel has nothing on Lang’s Mozart Turkish Rondo, and has Chopin Grand Waltz (Op.18) ever sounded this scintillating or vulgar? Conservatory students who play like this will be ask to desist or risk failure, but Lang Lang has become a law to his own. By this token, he deserves the epithet once applied to the unforgettable Horowitz. That is “unique”.     

LL acknowledges the audience.
(Photo: S.Kol, Paris)

Time to say goodbye.

Photographs by the kind courtesy of Steinway Gallery Singapore, Singapore Symphonia Co.Ltd and S. Kol, Paris.


Lynx said...

Thank you for your review, which I read in today's papers.

I found his playing mostly unsatisfying. Perhaps I'm being too much like an examiner or a judge at a competition, but I was reading the score at the same time as he played his Mozart sonatas, and playing like Lang Lang clearly is the best way to assure failure at an exam (to quote your 2010 review of another Lang Lang performance): there was a grave disrespect for detail as well as character in K282 and K310. He did not bother to pause between the two sonatas. One gets the feeling that like a young boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he cannot be bothered with the details needed to do a classical period work properly, and just wanted to dispatch things as quickly as possible.

The ballades were better, but the codas in the 1st, 2nd and 4th were played way too quickly for any sense of phrasing or dramatic development to occur. There's a lot of wonderful detail and harmonic tension in there that is lost at those tempi. Again, Lang Lang displays a lack of structural thinking: the 4th ballade is considered a masterpiece for its build up to the structural dominant prior to the coda, but the entire structural tension came unravelled when he rushed through it.

The fact that the audience gave him a standing ovation for such tasteless and ill-considered playing shows how superficial much of the audience has become, valuing speed over understanding. Lang Lang certainly judged the audience well. He gave more of what most of the audience wanted: two fast and vulgar encores.

I was heartened when you took a firm stand against Li Yundi's rendition of the Tchaikovsky concerto in 2009. I was keeping an eye out for your review of this recital because I was hoping that you would take a firmer stand against the tastelessness of this man's playing. Because you had not, I thought leaving a comment on your blog might at least make it clear to those who are trying to found out others' opinion of the recital, that there are at least a discerning few who find this sort of playing very base.

You are right to point out that this man polarises opinion.

Chang Tou Liang said...

Dear Lynx

Thank you for your very considered comments, which are lucid and balanced.

Lang Lang will fail every piano exam, and his playing will not make it past the first round of any piano competition (including the National Piano Competition taking place right now). But does he care? Because of his unique and highly enviable position, he can do as he pleases, which does send wrong signals to young pianists who are hoping for a modicum of success.

Yundi was sloppy, unprepared and unprofessional. Lang Lang has the world in his fingers, and he knows it. That's the difference between my two reviews.

Frankly I'd rather listen to Lim Yan, Albert Lin, Natalie Ng, Abigail Sin, Azariah Tan, Clarence Lee, Jonathan Shin, Song Ziliang et al for real musicianship.