Sunday 8 December 2019

A note on the stature of pianist Lang Lang

The modern pianist Lang Lang is a 'base breaker' - i.e. among the fans of classical piano he evokes extremes of both approbation and rejection. Some regard him as - either already or potentially - one of 'the greats'; others as a hyped, shallow, flashy showman.

Here is my impression, for discussion among those who care about such matters. The range of evaluation suggests a combination of significant strengths and weaknesses, and one's attitude perhaps depends on the relative valuation of these strengths and weaknesses.

His main strengths are that, technically, he seems to be able to do almost anything; and furthermore he can play with that lyrical phrasing (musicality) that is indispensable but innate (and not teachable). 

His weakness is a musical equivalent of 'short-attention span'. He cannot sustain his concentration and grasp across the long spans of music that are a feature of classical music.

Consequently, his performances consist of (often) wonderful sections, each lasting some tens of seconds; but not joined together into the larger arcs of movements and whole works. Superficially, Lang Lang seems to get bored, and 'messes around' every few bars - in reality, he probably does not musically comprehend the structure of the work he is playing.

Lang Lang is like the sculptor of a bust who carves beautiful eyes, nose and mouth - but cannot assemble them into a face.

Those music critics who are able to apprehend and appreciate musical architecture therefore rate Lang Lang pretty low - while recognising the virtuosity; those who focus on the close-up musical detail (and perhaps can't grasp musical architecture, or who don't much value it), perceive that he can do this at a top-notch level, as well as anybody. 

(If I am right) Lang Lang's weakness is rare among the highest level of pianists - an architectural grasp is something usually to be take for granted at that level; and the disagreement about stature is concerned with which performer's interpretation is the best exemplification of the musical architecture of a particular work.

In other words, I am saying that Lang Lang is indeed a technical virtuoso rather than a great musician; but he is a virtuoso who has genuine, original musical insights at the level of musical detail.


Stephen Macdonald said...

Just listened to his "Fur Elise" from Bruce's link. Almost certainly the most refined and beautiful rendition I've heard. Fascinating person.

dearieme said...

If he has a good sense of rhythm, and if he is capable of improvisation, he should try jazz. Or he could start with ragtime.

The one classical musician to whom I have suggested this stared at me in horror and said "Dear God, I'm not good enough to play jazz."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nova - Yes, tis confirms my point. This is a miniature, 'minor' (albeit perfect of its kind), and architecturally simple piece. In this Lang Lang's gifts are seen at their fullest expression. But a Middle or Late Beethoven sonata or concerto...

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Ragtime would be an idea, because it is fully written. But are there any good Chinese jazzers? The ability to improvise at a highest level seems to be different from the ability to play classical music at the highest level.

Trouble is that there has been such a collapse in genius, that comparing the present with the past we know in advance what we will find - and the East Asians have only been performing Western music for about half a century.

Hrothgar said...

Well, for my part, I find him extremely hard to listen to. I speak as someone who does not usually have extremely strong opinions regarding the specific qualities of this or that particular pianist, providing they are competent performers to start with and can put in an enjoyable and reasonably compelling performance. Lang Lang never seems either enjoyable or compelling to me though, more like an irritating, buzzing, musical mosquito droning around my head until he is switched off.

Yes, he is very skilled, in a well-drilled, profuse, facile kind of way, but seems to have little personal connection with what he is playing most of the time, or awareness of what it is trying to communicate - nor does he bring much of his own to the party besides what seems like distracted, self-indulgent bouts of fussing over surface detail. I'm not sure that he is even aware that music is supposed to have an inner meaning, let alone that it might be the performer's job to communicate it.

I suppose I would tend to come down on the "Architectural" side of the question, while not necessarily considering it a superior way to appreciate music or something to particularly strive for as a listener - it is simply how things happen to strike me. I more or less agree with your analysis, at any rate.

Bruce Charlton said...

@H - I think we have the same general attitude here - but I can imagine that even the best pianists might be very interested and impressed by what Lang Lang does with some particular *passages* of music - certainly I have been. He has flashes when he combines beautiful tone, clarity of texture and musical phrasing - and does those particular bits as well as anyone. Of course you and I would demand much more of an overview before regarding a pianist as 'great' - nonetheless, credit where due!

Nicholas Fulford said...

When it comes to music, the important thing - for me - is that is transforms or plays me as the listener, that it carries me on an emotional-musical journey over and through tensions and resolutions towards a satisfying end point. It has to so affect my normal state that it allows me to forget and become lost in something beautiful.

Lang Lang has a delightfulness, but I am not broken out of my awareness of listening in the micro into the flow of the musical narrative - or if it is, it is in short spans that are beautiful but not sustained. He is intense, detailed, and interesting, but not transformative. This reminds me of my audiophile stage where I was paying more attention to the sound and not enough to the music. As I have aged and my hearing has become less acute, and as I have also been pulled out of a fixation on technical virtuosity, my wholistic experience of music has become the essential. (I guess we all have a chance to grow up.)