Thursday, 29 March 2012

Lang Lang's Beethoven No.2

Here, a bit late, is my second review of Lang Lang's Beethoven -- of the third and final concert in his RAH concerto cycle. I've been doing a fair bit more thinking about the way one which can or should aim to address the Lang Lang phenomenon.. And this post is in part reaction to several things: Ivan Hewett's argument on the Telegraph website that censuring showiness amounts to snobbery; the extraordinary amount of invective aimed at him (and, by extension, critics in general) in comments reacting to that; Joseph Streeter's considered comment on my previous blog entry; and my own being taken to task by a musicologically-minded friend on Facebook, who argued, similarly to Hewett, that there are plenty of historical precedents for the very greatest performers playing fast and loose with the musical text--and any idea of the composer's intention. Hewett cites Paganini; my friend cited Beethoven's markings on his copy of the Goldberg Variations, and suggested I'd put forward a criticism--in my last blog entry--rather too invested in the idea that a performer should serve the composer. I'd been careful to avoid expressing this view in my review, however, knowing how it's an attitude long criticized in musicology, where there's an acknowledgement of the impossibility of knowing a composer's 'intentions'.

Any performance, as Richard Taruskin argued long ago, that makes claims towards 'being true to the composer', etc., tends to say more about the performer's idea of the composer than anything else. And I suppose criticism similarly says a fair bit about the critic--although not in the way, I'd say, that some of the more offensive commenters on Hewett's article seem to suggest. Similarly, one might assume that some of the less seasoned (or jaded and grumpy, depending on one's view) concert-goers who react so favourably to Lang Lang are less invested in the idea of the composer and his -- sorry, but when we're talking about these big-C composers it still is 'his' -- authority and intention. This is a refreshing attitude, and it's nice to see it formalized so eloquently in Hewett's piece--and he's very right to suggest that we, as audiences, are usually pretty susceptible to the visual in a performance, and just as likely to praise a performer who seems to be communing with a composer as chastise one who seems not to be.

But there's no doubt a balance to be struck. And it obviously has something to do with the composer being performed. Maybe one might argue that, in a battle of the egos, Beethoven is always going to win out over an upstart performer. But it's also a matter of consistence in interpretation.  I'm happy to watch a pianist wrestle the composer fair-and-square into submission with a single-minded interpretative approach, but Lang Lang's Beethoven playing seems akin to breaking him down with series of playful pokes, elbows and kicks in the chins. As it is, he cobbles together the bits from other interpretations, juggle them about, emphasize them, and present them as he fancies. It doesn't tell us much about Beethoven, but then, on reflection, it doesn't really tell us much about what Lang Lang--deep down--is all about either.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Lang Lang's Beethoven

One of my assignments last week was to cover the second and third concerts of Lang Lang's Beethoven concerto cycle at the Royal Albert Hall. My review of the second is here, and probably communicates a fair amount of frustration with the pianist, who is still bafflingly profligate with his talents. (The third concert was an improvement, and I'll post to the review when it appears). His playing regularly inspires the same refrain from the critical fraternity, it seems, regarding fast fingers steered to wilful extremes by immature musicianship. Then again, there seems little option for those reviewing his performances, if they are marred by the same faults, than to repeat the same criticisms. Some seem to give in and tire of this (and it certainly leaves one's adjective cupboard looking rather bare), but, without wishing to seem pompous, isn't it exactly when one starts to think that one's voice is being heard less and less that one should just start shouting a bit louder?

I notice the responses to Martin Kettle's 1-star review of the first concert show that there's still an alarming number of strange assumptions regarding what motivates critics. Here the commenters wheel out the same, tired view that those critical of popular classical performers are just worried because these performers will lead to the rarified world of classical music becoming polluted with the hoi poloi. 'Some attitudes towards Lang Lang are based more and snobbery and prejudice,' writes one; 'I think if Lang Lang has committed any crime in music,' writes another, 'it has been to enjoy himself far too much amongst people who are -- how shall we say -- a bit "stiff"'. Someone else asks, 'I wonder if the fact that Lang Lang is massively popular has anything to do with their [i.e. those critical of him] judgement. Because it reads a bit like snobbery, to be honest -- the vulgar little showman, who does he think he is?'

It's all a bit baffling and depressing, but hardly surprising. Classical music still has an enormous image problem it seems, which dictates that criticism can so automatically be interpreted as snobbery and prejudice. I suppose a lot of it boils down to everyone's proprietorial attitude towards their own subjective reaction. When that reaction is strongly contradicted, one's pride is hurt. (I touch on this a little in an earlier post about the 'Comment'). But that anyone should assume that the main motivation of a critic is to keep as many people out of their world as possible is deeply saddening. The classical world has, like any other, its share of curmudgeons, but surely, and particularly these days, everyone would want to see every classical concert packed out and attended by as many people as possible. Lang Lang certainly manages this, but too much of his Beethoven playing, in particular, seems to be about him rather than the composer. I just hope that those at the concerto cycle will now also think about going to hear one of the many other great pianists out there -- Mitsuko Uchida is just one, whose recent LSO cycle showed what real pianistic wit and interpretative freedom is all about -- playing Beethoven.

For those unfamiliar with Lang Lang's playing, the following example might serve to demonstrate why one might question his taste as a performer. And I remember his playing of this little Chopin Etude as an encore from the first time I went to see him (an RFH recital, about five years ago). I was expecting great things, and had assumed that some of the stuff I'd read was just curmudgeonly and mean-spirited. After all, much like many of the commenters on the Guardian review, all of these great conductors he'd worked with can't have been wrong...

And here, by way of contrast, a far more, ahem, neutral account...