Lang Lang

Loving Lang Lang: Heroic Tchaikovsky and Nielsen with Dudamel in Los Angeles

Among among certain classical music cognoscenti, few statements will probably cause one to lose more cred than saying this: “I love Lang Lang.”
More than a decade after his debut, the 31-year-old pianist’s fame shows no sign of abating. His performances on various daytime and late-night television programs, not to mention playing at the White House and the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics, have ensured him renown far beyond the confines of the classical music world; perhaps the only pianist today of whom it can be said that he is a household name. Which is one of the reasons why a lot of people are skeptical, if not outright hostile to his work. The overbearing rubati and general willfulness of his aggressively miked studio albums don’t help. Which is why for some people, uttering “I love Lang Lang” is about as abysmal an admission to make as confessing a love for top 40 radio or Thomas Kincaide paintings would be elsewhere. In other words, very uncool.
Admittedly, I’m one of those people who turn up their noses at Lang Lang. Er... that is to say was. Because the Lang Lang that made an appearance at Walt Disney Hall last Thursday was nothing like anything I had ever heard on his studio albums.
His playing of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1 was sleek, polished, exuberant, highly distinguished, and wonderfully alive; utterly unlike his sludgy studio album with the Chicago Symphony and Daniel Barenboim as one can imagine.
His tone was throughout pearlescent, magisterial, and spiced with Romantic daring. Yes, sometimes he would take a few passages so slow as to nearly break the melodic line into a scattering of Jackson Pollock-like splotches of notes that hung disconnected in the air. But even that wasn't so much a nuisance as it was a source of fascination. His passagework in the second movement’s “Prestissimo” was luminous; spinning dazzling crystalline webs of delicate pianistic filigree.
Fully engaged was the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel, matching note-for-note their soloist’s bounding, dynamic musicality. Some may grimace over their performance’s athleticism. But this is music that demands this kind of capital-R Romantic playing from orchestra and soloist. And let’s be clear: Lang Lang’s triumph never came at the cost of the score. At the root of the pianist’s irrepressible energy is a firm respect for the composer and the score.
Am I ready to become a Lang Lang believer? This performance would have made a convert out of even the grumpiest pianophile.
That same free-flowing power lent its charge to Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4. Nicknamed “The Inextinguishable”, the English equivalent fails to convey the full spectrum of meaning that the Danish name “uudslukkelige” implies, which is closer to “That Which is Inextinguishable.” It’s a crucial difference. It’s not the symphony itself which is “inextinguishable”, but what it was intended to portray: life and man at the center of it, seizing his destiny by the throat.
A shout for joy and an affirmation of belief of the unstoppable force of life – think of it as a kind of negative of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde – the symphony is made all the more poignant and defiant by the fact that it was composed while Central Europe lay in ruins under bombs, trenches, and rolling clouds of poison gas unleashed by World War I.
“Unstoppable” could very well describe the Philharmonic’s and Dudamel’s take on the music. And “explosive”. The furious opening gave way to wide expanses of sound that seem to speak of the pastoral beauty of the Danish countryside, which the orchestra beautifully underlined and shaped. The merry second movement as well as the severe and odd third movement erupted seamlessly into the timpani riot of the finale.
Dudamel recently recorded the symphony with Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. He sounded a bit tentative in that recording; not yet fully immersed in Nielsen’s idiom. Thursday, however, proved him to be a Nielsen conductor of the first rank. Will more Nielsen symphonies follow from this pairing? I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that the answer is “yes”.