The Chinese pianist Lang Lang made his London debut by playing Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto at the Proms this year. This was his eagerly anticipated first recital in the capital. As coincidence would have it, Lang Lang's programme included Rachmaninov's Second Sonata and Balakirev's Islamey – the two heavy bravura works another young pianist chose for her London debut only nine days earlier. No comparisons need be made, but suffice it to say that Lang Lang's performances utterly justified his choice of two warhorses I could happily live without for the next 10 years. It would be hard to imagine more powerful or more coherent accounts, and yet, harsh though it may seem, anything less is not enough.
He played the revised version of the Rachmaninov, launching it like an avalanche, before applause had finished. His sound wasn't enormous, but it was grand, his expressive force turbulent, then agonisingly delicate in the relaxed passages. His links to the middle and third movements opened strongly, creating a great sense of continuity. The recall of the first movement during the middle one erupted like a natural phenomenon, and he leaped into the final Presto as if a spring had been released. With the arrival of the last big tune, you felt there might have been an imaginary orchestra in his head, spurring him on to greater glory.
With hindsight, his opener – Haydn's E major Sonata (31 in Hoboken's catalogue) – seemed like a light hors d'oeuvre, though it wasn't played in a trivial way: it was both dainty and witty, though the central movement was perhaps a bit slow for allegretto. It proved, anyway, that this tyro can play classical music stylishly.
After the interval, the first of Brahms's Six Pieces, Op 118, was expansive and strong, the second very thoughtfully treated, with some particularly eloquent dialogue between the hands, bringing the left to the fore, during the central section. In the G minor Ballade, I would have liked a more equal balance, less favour to the right, because the rugged texture of chugging chords is so satisfying in itself. The fourth piece was rapid and secretive, and much in the last two pieces was almost impressionistic, but true to Brahms's sense of mysterious melancholy.
The great thing about the evening was Lang Lang's obvious enjoyment of every note, his tremendous confidence, and he even brought imperious conviction to Tchaikovsky's not-always-coherent Dumka. By contrast, his C sharp minor Nocturne – a perfect gem in Tchaikovsky's plaintive songlike style – was exquisitely tender.
Which left Balakirev's horrendous Islamey – a freak, a monster, absurd and disjointed. Or so one thought. Here, taken at a good, fast tempo, without the usual panting decelerations in order to fit in all the notes, which nevertheless did all manage to register, we actually heard what Balakirev meant. Rapid repeated notes were delivered full force, and immaculately even; the spirit was exuberant rather than stressful, while the winsome Tartar melody was delicately perfumed for seduction.
Mily Balakirev, like Lang Lang after he has delivered one of his "coups", might have raised his arms in astonishment and almost fallen off his chair backwards.