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...


  1. It reminds me a bit of the way that people attacked critics for their generally very negative reviews of David Helfgott (I do not mean to suggest that Lang Lang is comparable to Helfgott in other respects - clearly he is a much greater technician, and is more than just a novelty act). But I don't know what a critic is supposed to do when confronted with such performances, and claims of snobbishness are very lazy (and I suspect that many of the people who go to a Lang Lang concert are not regular concert-goers, and have no real basis of comparison upon which to judge his performances).
    As you must know, Ivan Hewett has commented on the recent Lang Lang reviews on the Telegraph website, criticizing our association of great musicianship with self-abnegation, and suggesting that the notion of letting the music speak for itself is an illusion. But there surely is a meaningful difference between, e.g. Glenn Gould's second recording of the Goldberg variations and the recordings of Murray Perahia and Andras Schiff. And I for one see nothing wrong with regarding the Perahia and Schiff recordings as markedly superior interpretations, in that they express the composer's intentions much more faithfully, and are in general much more illuminating of the music (as opposed to the personality of the performer).

  2. Joseph, many thanks for your comment. You're right, it's all very similar to the whole Helfgott phenomenon, although, of course, Lang Lang is a major talent -- which actually means there's more at stake with him. I'm actually just formulating a second blog entry on the subject trying to deal with this whole fidelity vs. flamboyance/artist vs. composer idea, which I think the Lang Lang debate seems to have brought out into the open again. Watch this space -- and I'll be interested to know what you think...

  3. I'm a mere teen in the early 10s, hence forgive my intrusion into this conversation, but I'd like to pose a question on classical music, in which, do we play on the composer's behalf? Or do we play to express what we want expressed? :/

  4. Dear Nicholas: I will try to answer your question. It depends on who you are trying to be. If you are a professional piano performer you must adapt what you want to express to the score written by the composer. That is, your expressive needs must be in concordance with the composer original.If you want just to express yourself you must perform your own music.

  5. I think the root cause is that Lang Lang is not fluent in European languages (listen to him speak and you'll know what I mean) unlike, say, Yuja Wang, and so he simply regards Chopin as a set of notes to do whatever he likes, without any need to reflect the actual linguistic or cultural characteristics of music from that composer. It's like how Mark Zuckerberg speaks Mandarin. Very good for a foreigner, but very far from what native speakers would term 'natural'.