For sheer bravura technique, there's not a piano player in the world who can touch Lang Lang. His fingers are fleeter, his attacks stronger, his releases crisper, his pianissimos quieter, his fortissimos louder, and his climaxes bigger than those of any other pianist you'd care to name — living or dead.
The twenty-five-year-old Chinese supervirtuoso will be making his second Ann Arbor appearance in Hill Auditorium on Wednesday, April 2. For those who missed his debut here in 2004, his performing style is well documented on eight Deutsche Grammophon CDs, the most recent titled The Magic of Lang Lang, and in YouTube clips, the most popular called "Lang Lang Gone Mad." Reactions to his style are equally well documented — and equally divided. For those who love him, he is classical music's Jimi Hendrix. For those who loathe him, he is his generation's José Iturbi.
However one feels about Lang's style, one can describe his approach. For Lang the notes in the score are inviolate, and never before has any pianist executed them with such deadly accuracy. Everything else, though, is up for grabs. Tempos are supremely supple, turning and twisting with scant regard for bar lines or tempo indications. Articulation is entirely willful, with legato lines punctured by unmarked staccato and staccato lines distorted by unindicated sforzandos. Dynamic markings, along with crescendo and diminuendo markings, are ignored or reversed as often as obeyed.
Whether or not one enjoys Lang's playing, one cannot deny it's caught the imagination of younger listeners. Where older pianists' faultless fidelity sounds overly scrupulous to them, Lang's flamboyant individuality sounds recklessly impetuous — and extraordinarily exhilarating. While older listeners disdain his indifference to tradition, his contemporaries acclaim Lang's freshness, his freedom, and his obvious delight in his own prowess. And, it must be added, Lang's contemporaries include not only the already established European and American markets but the vast and burgeoning Asian market as well — making him a truly international phenomenon.
Like it or not, Lang isn't killing classical music; he's keeping it alive by making it new. Lang isn't only the present, he's quite probably the future of classical music. Like it or not, all one can reasonably do is get used to it.
To paraphrase the poet, "Roll over, Pollini — tell Perahia the news."
Photo © Felix Broede / Deutsche Grammophon.
[Review published April 2008]