A Classic Contrast (Or So It Seems)
Skill, Attitude Unite Lang Lang, Yundi Li

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lang Lang and Yundi Li, the 25-year-old Chinese star pianists who performed on consecutive nights in the Washington area this week, are easy to package as a contrasting pair. Day and night. Funky and formal: Lang Lang on Tuesday in offbeat black concert garb, Yundi Li in tie and tails on Wednesday. Dionysian (denoting Lang Lang's effusive exuberance) and Apollonian (for Yundi Li's more classical, purist approach).

Another easy comparison is populist sellout vs. musician's musician. Lang Lang is, if you will, the Pavarotti to Yundi Li's Domingo -- the one who is embracing the mass market at the expense, many would say, of artistry.

Interestingly, though, while their approaches are very different, the underlying attitude about music is much the same.

Tuesday's concert at the Kennedy Center bore out the idea (formed at several concerts over the past few years) that Lang Lang, after the stunning promise of his 2001 Carnegie Hall debut, has become one of the most maddening pianists on Earth. He can make any musical passage crass, coarse and bombastic. He can also create moments of breathtaking beauty. And a listener never knows which is coming next. Just as you are ready to write him off for some egregious piece of showboating, he turns around and does something so lovely that you are willing to forgive him all trespasses. It certainly keeps you listening, even if much of the time you want to grab him and shake him in frustration.

His program was a bid for artistic seriousness, opening with one of Schubert's late great sonatas, the A Major, which he plunged into with a brusque, abrasive and un-Schubertian flourish. The same phrase, in the recapitulation, returned with melting beauty, silk-soft and sensuous. Such contrasts are the cornerstone of an approach that insists that a listener follow every twist and turn of a piece; Lang Lang is so eager to spell out the music's drama that he essentially places large flashing neon arrows around every change of tempo or mood.

The result, at times, borders on parody as the music is exaggeratedly slowed, or races into manic hysteria. It is good music played with consummate ability and very bad taste. And in the pianist's palpable efforts to inflate a Great Masterpiece to still greater heights, Schubert's homey simplicity -- his down-to-earth streak -- was missing altogether.

There were certainly fine moments; the lightness of the third movement of the Schubert, or some gorgeous passages in a parti-colored selection of Debussy preludes. Yet everything he touched turned into a virtuoso vehicle at some point. And there were also flops: The Bartok sonata, played from sheet music with a spasmodic hysteria that produced the aural equivalent of dry heaves in places, and Chopin's A-flat Polonaise, of which he made an unequivocal hash, shredding the whole line of the piece in tantrums of pedal and fingerwork.

At Strathmore the following night, Yundi Li appeared a contrast indeed: well-bred, elegant, demure, the epitome of good taste, so sober as to be a little boring until he unleashed some virtuoso fireworks of his own. He opened with a supremely classical take on Mozart's K.330, crisp and light, and continued with a selection of his calling-card composer, Chopin, playing the Op. 33 mazurkas, the nocturne Op. 9, No. 2, and the showy Op. 22 "Grande Polonaise Brillante," with a detour into the Liszt/Schumann "Widmung" to underscore the lyrical singing lines of his playing. There is nothing effete about his Chopin; it is sensitive but strong.

If Lang Lang went against type with the Schubert, Yundi Li did the same with "Pictures at an Exhibition," departing from the purity of abstract music to plunge into a big colorful narrative piece. Mussorgsky's raw leanness pulled the pianist from his obedient shell, and he drew out nuances and colors lost in the familiar orchestral version: acerbity in the oft-Disneyfied "Ballet of the Chicks," relaxed majesty in "The Great Gate of Kiev." And he was adept at creating and sustaining a mood without constantly hammering his point home.

Like many putative contrasts between artists (think Pavarotti-Domingo), this one is partly artificial. Both pianists record for Deutsche Grammophon; it is probable that their external disparities are deliberately played up.

Their similarities go beyond abundant virtuosity, and certainly beyond the mannerism they shared of gently gesturing at the hand that was playing with the hand that was not, as if one hand were schooling the other.

This mannerism was an expression of what both of them were, at bottom, communicating: the bourgeois sense of classical music as high art. The music, sacrosanct, is a master to be served. It is treated with reverence -- glances heavenward, thrown-back heads and other signifiers of a proper sense of greatness.

And if both are expressing the same thing, Yundi Li is expressing it less colorfully. His program was the more conventional, the one we are supposed to like. But thinking it over afterward, I found I had, as a listener, been more engaged by my annoyance at Lang Lang than my distant approval of Yundi Li.

Both pianists are young artists who have found their forms. And both are still searching, in different ways, for their own distinctive content -- a content that would make their music truly come to life.

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