Lang lang comes as a package. Even after being laid off due to an arm problem, he still has his wonderful piano technique. He always offers himself as a very serious musician. It is certainly important – inspiration for millions. But he’s also one of the more mannered maulers in the repertoire you’re likely to encounter.
This Barbican recital put it all in the spotlight. No playing pianist Bach Goldberg Variations – they were prefaced by Schumann’s Op 18 Arabesque – tries to take public money for old string. A tiptoe or two during the Goldbergs suggested some were not getting what they expected. Be clear, too, that there were moments of Bach’s dazzling play, such as in the lightning-fast jumps and shadows of the 14th variation, where Lang’s quicksilver touch was a delight.
Too often, however, Lang seemed determined to muffle the music with love, in the small details as well as in the whole. When he plays fast, he is very fast; when it is slow it is funereal. The opening tune was drawn with such elongated exaggeration that its role as the heartbeat of the subsequent variations was lost. The famous 25th variation, whose stillness and chromaticism are at the heart of the emotion of the work, has been stretched beyond the imaginable and almost stopped.
Some of Lang’s idiosyncrasies worked, such as his habit of suddenly bringing to light a cheerful rhythmic figure previously unnoticed. He was also alive to articulate the bass to the ground which holds the structure together. At other times, however, the eccentricity becomes perverse. The mannered dynamics Lang imposed on the last variation of the Quodlibet, one of the Goldbergs most sociable moments, meant that the opening aria’s next return felt like an addition rather than a thoughtful return of a long musical journey.
Andras Schiff once said that he still hopes the audience leaves without applause after the Goldbergs. No chance of that here. The fans immediately stood up. It’s all part of the deal.