“He should have waited twenty more…”
The statement above is just one of a stream of pessimistic Facebook comments in response to Deutsche Gramophone’s post announcing pianist Lang Lang’s latest release: a two-disc album of J.S. Bach’s masterful Goldberg Variations. The release includes a studio recording and an unedited recording of a poignant performance from the Thomaskirche in Leipzig (Bach’s former stomping ground and current place of rest). The global piano sensation stated that he waited “twenty years before playing the Variations in public”, yet it is clear by the Facebook comment above that this highly anticipated event was, for some, a cause for lament. This scenario is certainly familiar for Lang Lang, whose album releases are constantly greeted by scathing reviews from both audiences and critics complaining of a performance style which is too self-indulgent. Prior to hearing his new album, I was never an avid listener of Lang Lang, yet curiosity pervaded upon reading those brash Facebook comments and I then proceeded to hear the album for myself.
Before addressing my thoughts, which are polemical but necessary, some context is first required. Lang Lang’s new album marks an exciting turn for an artist whose career has been pathed by highly virtuosic and theatrical accounts of music spanning from the handsome, ‘Italian’ piano sonatas of Mozart to the lavish and impassioned musical outpourings of Rachmaninoff. Baroque recordings have rarely featured in Lang Lang’s repertory until now, and what a grandiose way to commence this fresh artistic chapter than to perform work considered so sacred in the Baroque repertory arsenal. For certain audiences, however, witnessing Lang Lang fulfil this “dream come true moment” (Lang Lang, 2020) feels like an invitation to witness David taking Goliath. Firstly, how can one possibly indulge in such a performance crafted with a playing style predominately informed by the aesthetic and style of later repertory? Secondly, and more importantly, how does Lang Lang’s interpretation fare with those of those giants of Baroque music who came before – Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia – whose hallowed Goldberg Variations still breathe in the ears of listeners today?
While these questions are important, this review will not consider them. In fact, this process of scrutiny is not only exhausting, but it unfairly and unnecessarily belittles Lang Lang’s interpretation for what it actually is: tremendously vivid and visionary in equal measure. Lang Lang’s performance does not only re-excavate Bach’s eminent work, but it also heralds a creative approach to the score. Each variation is sufficiently tinged with his distinct artistic charisma and virtuosity. I cannot myself belittle free speech from those Facebook users, but the notion that certain esteemed musicians have taken to reject Lang Lang’s interpretation based on the questions posed prior disturbs me slightly. His sumptuous manner of playing seems to sit ‘out of place’ with the genre and ‘suffocate the score itself.’ As I am instantly reminded of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson’s diatribe yet insightful publication Challenging Performance (2020) – denouncing conservatoires and audiences who restrict performers from pursuing more creative performances of Western (and non-Western) canonical works luxuriating in self-expression – critiquing an artist’s interpretation for ‘loving the music too much’ is not only baffling but uncalled for. Instead, critics must do better to ensure the riveting performance styles of today advanced in their critiques, rather than dwell on those prior recordings they consider to be the ‘benchmark’.
Lang Lang’s beguiling and refreshing vision for his Variations is immediately sensed upon the presentation of the “Aria”; the delectable, buoyant Sarabande which frames Bach’s work upon its appearance at the start and end. By pronouncing that characteristic melody un-regimentally, Lang Lang exhibits a liking for a luxurious and liberating lyricism, elegantly pervading in the other variations. He effects an undulating tempo for the third variation – the “canon at the unison” – resulting in a stylish and unshackled utterance of the churning quaver melody, in graceful dialogue with the crisp bass line. Lang Lang continues this approach to tempo in the eleventh variation, allowing those quaver descents to gracefully cascade. However, it is the performance of the fifteenth variation (the first minor canon) – stained with much melancholy – where the pianist’s lyrical talents are in full force. The piece’s final gasp – three ascending notes – is an incredibly moving moment, as Lang Lang leaves substantial space between them and suspends them in the pedal. In a work where the bass writing is considered the work’s jewel compositionally, Lang Lang’s idiosyncratic approach to melody is not only an impressive display of expression, but further illuminates Bach’s flair in writing variations of such stylistic diversity.
I am in awe of Lang Lang’s vibrant and flamboyant approach to ornamentation throughout. He embraces the spirit of the da capo form upon his repeats of both A and B sections with taxing yet majestic embellishments, showcasing his notably poised artistry at its finest. Indeed, I am somewhat humoured by complaints of Lang Lang’s ‘self-indulgent’ interpretation as contra-genre, since the whole point of ornamentation is to enable an artist the space to fully indulge in the music! The frequent insertion of trills in the first variation is exquisitely refreshing and cleverly intensifies the jubilant mood exuded by the rhapsodic quaver lines. Likewise, the eighteenth variation, which is my personal favourite, is especially celebratory. Returning briefly to the third variation, the addition of appoggiaturas create a stream of delightful dissonances, aided by that undulating approach to tempo. As for the majestic sixteenth variation, Lang Lang’s pompous decorations flawlessly match the robust character of the French Overture.
Both of Lang Lang’s performances are difficult to fault, and with the artist now releasing a stream of stand-alone recordings of Bach’s music, this new artistic chapter is only just beginning. More importantly, his Variations are a true testament to the increasingly expressive work carried out by today’s serious musicians – Tristano, Levit, Olaffson to name a few – in their pursuit for interpretations of Bach’s music which triumph in originality. In light of this, we must stop talking about this music as having a fixed identity through the performances of those ‘giants’ mentioned earlier, because these works should not have fixed identities to start with. So, let these musicians ‘love’ the music as much as they want to, especially since Bach dedicated his Goldberg Variations “To Music Lovers to, Refresh their Spirits”.
Lang Lang (2020). Lang Lang: Special Release-Day Presentation From Beijing. [online] www.deutschegrammophon.com. Available at: <https://www.deutschegrammophon.com/en/artists/langlang/news/join-lang-lang-for-a-special-release-day-presentation-from-beijing-260014>
Leech-Wilkinson’s Challenging Performance (2020) is available to read online for free at <https://challengingperformance.com>