lang lang

A Pianist With a Goal Taps Mozart and Chopin

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

When last we saw the star pianist Lang Lang, it was at the Grammy Awards on Jan. 26, jamming with Metallica on its power ballad “One,” to loud and muddled effect. In the first half of Mr. Lang’s recital at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday evening, Mozart was about as awkward a match for this pianist’s considerable talents as metal had been.

By adding the likes of Bach and Schubert to his recitals, Mr. Lang, 31, for several years has been trying to address a reputation for truly shining only in the Romantic repertory. His aim in Tuesday’s program was clear: to play three Mozart sonatas in a way that showed they plausibly anticipated Chopin’s four Ballades, which followed intermission.

This often meant a jarringly Technicolor Mozart. Mr. Lang is hardly without sensitivity; the opening Adagio of the Sonata No. 4 in E-flat (K. 282) was just one example. But even after he had settled into a thoughtful passage, he seemed unable to resist a sudden accent or an elongated pause, the kind of fussy move that was more effective in making sure the audience stayed alert than in sustaining the phrase or deepening the feeling.

Mr. Lang’s runs in the first movement of the Sonata No. 5 in G (K. 283) were clear but frigid, and the fast outer movements glibly juxtaposed steely loudness and hushed quiet. In the Sonata No. 4, there was the same blandness of extremes. In the most profound work in this set, the unsettled Sonata No. 8 in A minor (K. 310), Mr. Lang’s quick, fluent passagework had a grim determination. Nudging these pieces toward the Romantic era almost invariably meant playing them with exaggeration or aggression or both.

Chopin is better equipped to sustain exaggeration and aggression, and Mr. Lang’s account of the Ballades was, by the end, more satisfying, while being just as technically secure. He pounded admirably at the climax of the First Ballade, but he hadn’t set up the preceding material to amplify the grandeur. In the second, similarly, he was convincingly fast and loud and convincingly lyrical and soft, but he seemed stymied by the problem of bringing those two modes together in a single emotional field.

He insisted on underlining the graceful opening theme of the Fourth Ballade with harsh bass notes but moved through the chromatic development that followed with the same cool assurance he had brought to the third. It was not a moving or interesting performance, but its textures were varied and coherent.


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