Lang Lang at Strathmore: Expressive and Excessive

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Washington got another chance to grapple with the ongoing Lang Lang debate -- shameless crowd-pleaser? The brightest new star in the piano firmament? Or, God help us, both? -- on Thursday night, where the young Chinese virtuoso brought his shock-and-awe pianism to the Music Center at Strathmore.

Lang Lang's an engaging player, there's no doubt. He has drama to spare, and the kinetic display (flailing arms, flying torso and a head that appears to be getting periodic electric shocks) can be fun to watch. Besides, underneath the gymnastics, there's clearly some serious musical thinking going on.

So why, then, doesn't he put it more to work? The program started with a nifty little gem -- Mozart's Sonata in B-flat, K. 333 -- but Lang Lang glossed over its subtle emotional language and played it merely for pretty effect.

Schumann's Fantasy in C fared better. It's a passionate work, forgiving of Lang Lang's heart-on-sleeve excesses, and he made real poetic sense of it. A selection from Enrique Granados's "Goyescas" came crisply alive, and six short traditional Chinese works were charming, unpretentious and refreshingly non-virtuosic.

But the program ended with two works chosen blatantly for their show-stopping factor. Franz Liszt's arrangement of the death scene from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" was made to be milked -- and milk it Lang Lang did, to every last gulping sigh and heartthrob. And Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, which closed the program, was just an entertaining display of thump-and-bump pianism -- noisy, furious and signifying, in the end, pretty much nothing.

-- Stephen Brookes


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