Lang Lang has now embarked on his much-trumpeted residency at the Southbank, in which he will perform solo, play chamber music, front his ‘Lang Lang Inspires’ orchestra, and lead children in a massed piano event.
But there’s a cordon sanitaire round him: the announcement that he would perform the role of young pianists’ agony uncle – and nobody knows more about the agonies of frustrated ambition than he – brought the caveat that he ‘could not reply personally to any correspondence’. You may look, but don’t touch.
For his opening recital he set out to scale the peaks of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic pianism, in the form of Bach’s first partita, Schubert’s last sonata, and Chopin’s second book of studies. But if the challenge of the Bach was to find the register and catch the idiom, he succeeded only intermittently. Two crudely melodramatic pauses scarred the even surface of the opening prelude, and the Allemande went so fast that one couldn’t savour the detail; relentless tampering prevented the Sarabande’s serenely beautiful lines from speaking for themselves. Only the Gigue – which positively demands Lang Lang-style showiness - worked as it should.
The technical demands of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat are not enormous: here too the challenge is aesthetic, but one which can tax the very greatest pianists. Its momentum is tentative, somnambulistic, and it’s shot through with emotions ranging from high excitement to despair. Lang Lang seized on the long, low trill which darkens the opening, and by arbitrarily doubling its length halved its dramatic effect; on the other hand, he found much beauty in the rest of the movement, and in the sublime Andante which followed. In the closing Allegro he seemed both aware of the quicksilver quality in the writing, and unaware of its cumulative power as a valediction; he reduced the closing Presto to a cheap trick.
Then it was circus time. Of course he played Chopin’s Etudes brilliantly – he’s an indisputably brilliant pianist – but he consistently went for effects at the expense of poetry. It was all look-at-me stuff, see how fast and lightly I can play these heavy chords, see what finger-somersaults I can turn. Going among the adoring crowd afterwards, and shaking their hands as Liszt did with his admirers, his acknowledgement of the applause was a performance in itself.