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.