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.


  1. I found both of your posts on Lang Lang very interesting, and the more I think about the problem of interpretive validity the more intractable the problem seems to become! And yet it is very important that it be raised and discussed. I'm sure Ivan Hewett is right that the ideal of self-abnegation is pretty hopeless, at least when understood very literally, because we don't have access to the music uninterpreted. That said, the very idea of interpretation implies that there is something there to be interpreted, something sufficiently determinate that it cannot be played just any way the interpreter chooses. To use a basic example, it is not acceptable to play the slow movement of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata as an allegro. But exactly how slowly it should be played is a matter of interpretive judgement. There is, I think, about 3 minutes difference between Schiff's recent recording and Brendel's digital recording from the late 1990s (Schiff's Beethoven is interesting in this context, given how much he emphasises his fidelity to the score, and so to the interpreter's intentions; interesting too that quite a few critics found his interpretations rather mannered, and so anything but self-abnegating!)
    I've been thinking about the problem of musical interpretation in relation to my own line of work, which is in academic history, specifically intellectual history, which tends to be concerned with texts. We all, I think, have some sense of what it is to misrepresent a text by reading it tendentiously - and so we all have an inchoate sense of what a valid interpretation of a text might be. But saying in general what makes a reading tendentious is almost impossible, not least because some texts allow a wider range of valid readings than others. The analogy between textual interpretation (at least as done by historians) and musical interpretation falls down when pressed, insofar as one is an academic exercise, with fairly well-established criteria of validity. And of course there are cases outside academic history where tendentious readings of texts are sources of new insights (it seems fairly widely accepted that Kant was not a very fair reader of earlier philosophers, but we would not want to ignore his work for this reason). But I think for most musical works there is a range of valid interpretations, and several criteria that we can use to judge the validity of a particular interpretation. And a really good interpretation will satisfy several of these criteria (form, consistency, colour, fidelity to the score, etc etc).

  2. I meant Schiff's avowed fidelity to the composer's intentions....

  3. Joseph, thank you for your great contribution -- 'comment' seems, to me, to an inadequate word for it! As I'm sure you're aware, the whole idea of the text has became, rather late in the day, an obsession of musicology and it's indeed true that music has to be separated from other disciplines when dealing with the text -- which, as music, is inherently more open to or requiring of interpretation/performance. Slavish adherence to a text presupposes the ability to know what a composer wanted -- and composers, Stravinsky being the most famous example, always changed what they wanted -- and demands that a musician suppress his or her own expressiveness. Period practice at its most dogmatic makes exactly this mistake, where the apparently 'neutral' results can be read as reflecting a desire to banish anything so sordid as the performers own expressive inclinations from a transparent, clean reproduction of the score. (I tried to express this in a review of Roger Norrington's Mahler 9 at the Proms last year (, where his programme note seemed to portray vibrato as morally reprehensible -- maybe something to do with the fast wrist action).

    As you suggest, too, a lot of it seems to boil down to rhetoric, and talk of following a composer's intentions can be used to justify all manner of approaches. When it comes to writing about them, though, I suppose we also need to dignify our own responses -- often largely subjective -- within similar, ideologically coloured rhetorical frameworks.