Lang Lang is incomparable, frankly. Few concertizing pianists possess as much stardom, and none of them perform a repertoire as bombastic. So, when we heard he was playing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” at Bing Concert Hall, we knew it was going to be an interesting night.
Friday’s performance — which also included Schumann’s Arabesque op. 18 and an encore from “Mary Poppins” — was one of Stanford Live’s most anticipated events this season, with last-minute tickets surging to nearly $200.
The Grammy-nominated, forty-one-year-old Chinese pianist and philanthropist first debuted the “Goldberg Variations” from memory at the tender age of seventeen. In 2020, he released a recording of this work as part of his 10th studio album. He was set to tour the album in 2020, but most of the tour stops, including Stanford Live, were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The classical music world has been largely critical of Lang Lang’s interpretation of the work, with some believing that his energetic emotional expression is overly exaggerated. Here, we present two differing perspectives on Lang Lang’s performance — though we sat side by side.
An extraordinary evening — Aya Aziz
Despite having never played the piano, hearing — and seeing — Lang Lang play at Bing Concert Hall this Friday was one of the most memorable things I’ll probably ever witness.
I first fell in love with Lang Lang’s playing when I heard his piano rendition of “The Departure” from the soundtrack of the HBO TV series “The Leftovers.” I’ve looked forward to his Stanford Live performance since July!
Despite having never heard the “Goldberg Variations” until Friday night, I truly appreciate how Lang Lang’s emotional vitality brought out the unique layers of what would otherwise be a monstrous entity of notes for a non-musician to decipher. His expression added vibrant color to technical variations that would normally be in danger of being performed too robotically. This showcased not only Lang Lang’s virtuosity, but also the genius of Bach and the multidimensional quality of the piece.
I was fortunate to have the best seat in the house for a non-pianist: a middle-row seat slightly off center to the left. Why? I had an unobstructed, direct view of Lang Lang’s magical hands. In the opening Aria, his fingers delicately pressed the keys, producing a lilting sound giving the illusion of water droplets. When his nimble fingers entered into the climactic fast-tempo variations, churning out a million notes per minute, they shook with emotion to even his smallest pinky, painting the illusion of a ship battling jagged waves at sea.
Given the fact that Lang played nonstop through the evening’s repertoire (without an intermission), I appreciated how he also separated each variation with appropriate emotional cues. Sometimes he ended with a cheeky exhale and flourish release of his hands, inspiring chuckles from the audience. He gently phased out other variations, letting the final notes sit for a few drawn-out seconds to give them their proper presence and voice.
There was an almost comical number of distractions throughout the performance, including fans breaking the rules by recording or using flash photography, or young children squirming in the stage riser seats behind Lang Lang. A lady even walked in front of him to get to her own seat as he was grandly announced!
However, Lang Lang’s emotional vitality made it so easy to get lost in his beautiful playing. Several audience members responded to his music tenderly: a young girl in front of me leaning her head on her father’s shoulder, and an eighty-something year old next to me reaching out for his wife’s weathered hand.
After ending the “Goldberg Variations,” Lang Lang received a standing ovation. He graciously thanked the audience with outstretched hands, and even accepted a teddy bear gift from an enthusiastic father in the front row.
In a touching encore, Lang Lang performed a classical-piano rendition of “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins, giving the audience a peek into his new album of piano-adapted Disney favorites, “The Disney Book.” The piece exuded warmth and nostalgia; if I had a montage of the best moments of my entire life, I would want Lang’s rendition of this song as the soundtrack behind it.
Lang Lang performed the notoriously advanced “Goldberg Variations” by melting together each and every note with a rounded, pure sound, while still accentuating each one with deliberate emotional cues. It struck me that the same arms that crossed over each other at lightning speed moments to play with mesmerizing accuracy also curled and flowed like a dancer’s would. He tapped his foot on the pedal with exuberant energy to the rhythm, shifted to the end of his seat as he climbed up octaves and even made direct eye contact with the audience.
All of this allowed Lang Lang to transform music by Bach, which he himself once thought of as “strict” and prohibitive of “crazy things,” into something unusual, exciting, and beautiful. Perhaps most importantly, he made something memorable for a broad audience of pianists (and non-pianists!) alike.
The pianist’s perspective — Peyton Lee
“I hope he pulls it off,” was my first thought upon learning of Lang Lang’s program. A piece as daunting, calculated and intricate as the “Goldberg Variations” (with repeats, no less) should be a challenge for any pianist, but for the man I knew as “all flash and no substance,” I deemed the challenge insurmountable. Still, I wanted him to prove me wrong.
Unfortunately, the critics have merit. You may have heard that Lang Lang plays fast things too fast and slow things too slow: this claim is accurate. Though he seems to have taken much inspiration from Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording, some variations — including the agonizingly slow no. 25 — dragged so long that audience members had to step out. Others were taken so fast that the rhythm and meter became unintelligible. Most included strangely punched-out bass lines, gaudy ornamentation or poor contrapuntal voicings.
It’s for all these reasons that most consider Lang Lang an indulgent artist who shirks tastefulness in favor of showmanship. However, I have to admit that he plays the way aspiring pianists wish they could play. I wish I could take as much time as he does at the end of pieces; I wish I could bang out a trill so hard that I break a key for the rest of the performance. Lang Lang is brave enough to realize an unconventional interpretation of a piece outside his comfort zone.
He has real pianistic talent, even if he misuses it. He showed in the opening Schumann piece how controlled and nuanced his phrasing can be, though it felt out of place. He executed variations 5 and 28 with blinding speed and precision, though others were muddled. And he matched his body movements with every beat of every measure, sometimes for comedic effect and sometimes in a state of rapturous flow. Lang Lang seems to have mastered the rules and technique of classical piano, but he chooses to bend them to his leisure.
Though it pains me a little to say it, I came out of Friday’s performance admiring him. Music courses through every blood vessel and nerve in his body, and he has made it his life’s work to share it with a broader audience. Lang Lang knows that most people can’t sit through the “Goldberg Variations” with repeats, but he performs them anyway to show you why you should love Bach as much as he does. He’s imperfect; he takes liberties; he’s even infuriating at times. But he brings people into the concert hall and moves them to tears, which seems invaluable to the classical music community today.
Lang Lang did break a key on Friday: it was the G above middle C. Throughout the entire second half, I was agonized by this flaw which appeared in every variation, a symbol of his interpretive sacrilege. But by the time he finished the final aria with it, I found it endearing; it was a reminder of an impressive and effective performance — if only a bit out of his depth.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.