Lang Lang

Meeting Complex Bartok With Ease and Imagination

The superstar pianist Lang Lang may shamelessly cultivate a flamboyant persona. And he has been criticized widely for exaggerated expressivity. Still, no fair-minded person can deny that Mr. Lang has stupendous technique and keen musical instincts.
There was no showing off on Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall when Mr. Lang played Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Alan Gilbert conducting the New York Philharmonic. This exhilarating 25-minute work, completed in 1931, ingeniously blends the modernist and folkloric elements of Bartok’s language. Pianists consider it among the most technically demanding of all concertos. Mr. Lang gave a brilliant performance, not just glittering and incisive but joyous and smart.
Mr. Lang, who can play anything easily, seemed intensely focused on this occasion. He performed reading from the score with a page turner to assist him: a sight his ardent fans rarely see.
For all the musical complexities of this piece, Bartok intended it to be an exuberant concerto in the grand tradition. If the audience senses that a pianist is struggling to play it, the effect is lost. Mr. Lang dispatched the piece with uncanny ease and abundant imagination.
On its surface the first movement, in which the piano is accompanied only by percussion, woodwinds and brasses, is a breathless folk dance. The piano part teems with clusters and crisscrossing octaves. Fractured brass fanfares alternate with jagged bursts of piano chords, which Mr. Lang not only executed with aplomb but also voiced with care to bring out the melodic line or inner details. In one passage of mysterious rolled chords, he teased out an Eastern quality. The crazed cadenza was all the more ferocious for the ping and clarity of Mr. Lang’s playing.
The slow second movement begins with a somber, choralelike melody for strings alone, which the Philharmonic played with hushed richness. When the piano entered, Mr. Lang’s shaping of the fragile theme was beguilingly simple and sensitive. And in the restless finale, another kind of folk-tinged dance, Mr. Lang, backed by the inspired orchestra, played dazzlingly, sometimes bouncing eagerly on the piano bench as the driving music surged.
In recent seasons New Yorkers have heard two major pianists, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Andras Schiff, play this concerto with commanding technique and more distinctive musicianship. Still, the sheer exuberance of Mr. Lang’s playing was infectious. The performance drew enthusiastic applause, though not the automatic standing ovation Mr. Lang is used to when he plays a crowd-pleasing Romantic staple. That may come on Tuesday when he performs Liszt’s First Piano Concerto in a special Philharmonic program celebrating the Chinese New Year.
It was an astute idea on Mr. Gilbert’s part to precede the Bartok with Magnus Lindberg’s “Feria,” a 17-minute orchestral essay completed in 1997. The piece begins with highly charged, piercingly modern riffs driven by jagged brass fanfares. In a calmer middle section there are references to Monteverdi below the busy surface that emerge like out-of-focus anthems in the brass. Things pick up again, and the music speeds along, this time in big, heaving swings of orchestral sonorities so bright that you almost want to squint. The performance under Mr. Gilbert was dynamic and colorful. Mr. Lindberg is in the last of his three seasons as the Philharmonic’s composer in residence.
After intermission came Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. And in the context of this adventurous program, that familiar 1944 Neo-Classical piece sounded newly fresh and daring. That impression was boosted by Mr. Gilbert’s approach, which probed the music for depth and weight and drew sonorous, powerful playing from the Philharmonic. The finale, which can come across like a satirical, slapstick romp, was played here with such drive and bite that it seemed dangerous.