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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 14, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 02
Great pianist shows his limitations
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Great pianist shows his limitations

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Lang Lang
January 7
Benaroya Hall


'All flash; no soul!' That's what my musically sophisticated, raised-in-Europe friends said at intermission about Lang Lang's playing. I replied that I thoroughly disagreed.

To say that the 20-something Lang Lang is controversial would be understatement. His concerts are the hottest classical tickets in the world; his popularity approaches rock-star status. Indeed, I have never before heard at Benaroya the kind of wild yelling the sold-out audience gave this performance. The response became more and more ecstatic as the evening went on. There is no doubting that he is a showman extraordinaire. But is he musically profound, or just another Liberace?

There was no lack of soul or profound music-making in the opening 'Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2' by Beethoven. All of the young Beethoven's brilliant ideas came forth with loving care, powerful contrasts, and astounding ease. Lang Lang's love of this music could not be questioned. The music fit his talents perfectly. Yet I could not say the same for the 'Appassionata' sonata that followed. The performance was still impressive, but something was missing. It was as though the more mature Beethoven was not yet completely within Lang Lang's grasp. We heard all the notes, played with great energy and perfect technique. The second movement was sung with sustained beauty but somehow lacked warmth. The wild pyrotechnics of the last movement seemed easy under Lang Lang's fingers, but they lacked the coherence and sense we have heard from other pianists.

Still, I was expecting great things from the second half. Sadly, as the audience became more and more enthusiastic, I became disillusioned. The selections from Isaac Albéniz' 'Iberia' lacked appropriate 'color.' The piano sounded the same as in the Beethoven. Lang Lang played with the same respect, but failed to inflame the music with the Latin passion and wit one hears in the playing, for instance, of Alicia de Larrocha. The music lacked atmosphere or personality and was thus a little boring.

One of the most technically demanding works, Prokofiev's 'Sonata No. 7, Op. 83,' gave Lang Lang ample opportunity to show his skills. Flying fingers indeed! But, again, something was missing. Under the equally impressive fingers of Yevgeny Sudbin or Yefim Bronfman, to mention two who have played this work recently in the Pacific Northwest, the Prokofiev emerged as an immensely expressive work. With Lang Lang, it became little more than a chance to show off. The physical power was present, but the emotional power failed to show. I almost forgot why I love this work!

Two lovely Chopin etudes as encores found the artist back in his element and were immensely satisfying, even if one was overly fast.

Would I see Lang Lang again if and when he next plays in Seattle? You bet! In fact, it might just be an exciting ride to watch him grow as an artist while keeping his expressive showmanship and his adoring audience. He may not be Alfred Brendel, as my friends complained, but I like hearing a young artist play like a young artist. We might well learn something from a younger energy and point of view!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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