The pianist Lang Lang is one of today’s most popular, gifted and divisive performers. At a time when fewer and fewer classical artists are able to sell out a concert hall, he has mass appeal — as demonstrated on Sunday afternoon by the diverse crowd that filled the Kennedy Center for his recital. And there’s no denying his enormous talent. It’s his style that gets people talking. On Sunday, he swayed over the keys, conducted his own playing by gesturing with whatever hand happened to be free, dragged out Adagios melodramatically. This is too overdone for Mozart, some of us say, and dismiss him as exaggerated, a sell-out. And crowds continue to come.
Whatever you think of Lang Lang, it’s a feather in the cap of the National Symphony Orchestra to have snared him for a week-long residency at the Kennedy Center — six performances, including a different Beethoven concerto every night of his three concerts with the full orchestra. The draw was the orchestra’s equally divisive music director, Christoph Eschenbach, who will perform with and conduct him later in the week, and whom the pianist, in remarks at the end of Sunday’s program, called “my favorite musician in the entire world.”
Over the years, my reaction to Lang Lang has gradually moved from initial appreciation of his talent to the head-shaking disapproval I share with many colleagues at what we see as his excesses. Sunday’s recital started off with what seemed to me more of the same: the light contours of Mozart’s early G Major sonata, K. 283, stretched to the breaking point and asked to carry an emotional freight beyond its ability to sustain. The second movement slowed to a crawl and exuded Big Emotion; the third movement became a jaunty gallop that seemed to signal to the audience, “Isn’t this jolly?” in a slightly too brittle tone. Everything seemed to have quotation marks around it. Two more Mozart sonatas followed, all marked by similar intensity: the left hand crashing down chords while the right hand sustained a gossamer web of sound in the second movement of the A minor sonata, K. 310; or the pervasive air of melancholy that bled from the Adagio opening of the E-flat major sonata, K. 282, into what is usually the more cheerful sonata form section that follows it.
All of this is expressed through some sheerly beautiful playing. Lang Lang can spin a line of music up the keyboard in a single, slender, shimmering ribbon, getting smaller and smaller, touching on dynamic nuances beyond what you thought you were able to perceive; he did it again and again, just in case you thought it was an accident. Indeed, I can never stop listening when Lang Lang plays; he makes sure you follow along. I may not like what he’s doing, but I surely do hear that he’s doing it. I have always taken this as a sign of his populism: his playing is so transparent he’s making sure he spells it out for the crowd.
But as I listened on Sunday I idly began to question the facility of dismissing this major figure on the music scene as merely a talented showman. His recital program certainly didn’t pander: three Mozart sonatas followed by all four Chopin ballades. The Chopin, of course, is a more fitting vehicle for Lang Lang’s brand of emoting; the big-keyboard, big-gesture music that more easily accommodates his extremes of mood and his various ways of pushing the envelope. It sounded pretty terrific.
And when I say it’s a “more fitting vehicle,” it’s probably a sign that I, and you, should stop and think about what we mean when we say something is appropriate to Mozart and something else isn’t. We have reams of information about period style that informs our current sense of how Mozart should be played. Partly based on that, I want Mozart to be springy, resilient, innocent, clear — any or all of those things, but in some combination Lang Lang didn’t give me.
But prescriptions are a dangerous thing in the world of art. Lang Lang offers something else — originality. Is his interpretation a distortion, a monumental gesture to stereotypes of classical music as Great Art, as I heard it? Or is it an individual approach showing the way that a pianist in the 21st century can embrace works of the 18th and make them his own?
Listening on Sunday, and battling my dislike of the way he played the Mozart, I wondered if my negative review might be the kind of thing people quote 40 years hence to laugh at the cluelessness of conformity when confronted with a new voice doing things as they hadn’t ever been done before. Is Lang Lang a sell-out, or a genius, or a little of both? I don’t know, but he makes me think and he makes me listen — which I can’t say of every artist.