Lang Lang sounds like Beethoven improvising

Back from vacation. Always a little bittersweet, coming home agai, because home means the tumult of work. Many people wonder how I keep up with everything I have to do, and that’s a good question. I find myself getting more organized, or rather having to get more organized, and rising as best I can to the challenge. Using Gantt charts in project management software is my latest way of keeping track of time, future time, in this case. It’s endlessly helpful, with too much to do, to have projects, trips, and major milestones laid out on a calendar grid, so I can see at a glance what’s happening when, and — the most important part — when I’ll have time to work on things that are coming up (or, even more important, when I’ll need to find time for each project).

One big lesson — not to feel nostalgic for vacation, or to vow to keep my (relatively) relaxed vacation head as I launch into the fall. That vow is doomed to failure. Better to transmute the relaxation, and the calmer perspective, into a vow that can be kept, to promise myself that I’ll survey what’s on my plate in as relaxed a way as possible, so I can plan the least frazzled way of dealing with it.

I think many of us have these problems.

But enough of that. I’ve listened to a lot of music in the past month, and could give a special shout to the classic old recording of Das Lied von der Erde, with Julius Patzak and Kathleen Ferrier, with Bruno Walter conducting. Patzak, especially, was a revelation to me — so light, in the middle movements, and so drunkenly powerful when he needs to be — though of course Walter’s easy certainty, both about the flow of the piece and its mood, is a wonder.

And then the Winterreise recording by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, which is breathtaking — nuances of sorrow, each song different from  the other, and such silences.

But maybe I delighted most in the first CD of Lang Lang Live in Vienna, a two-CD set to be released on Sony Classical on October 12. (In the US, that is. I saw it reviewed in the UK, and I see on the Amazon UK site that it’s already available. This blog is read internationally, so I think the release is fair game for me.)

On the first CD, he plays two Beethoven sonatas, the very early Op. 2 C major one, and the Appassionata. I know many people roll their eyes at Lang Lang, and what they feel are his exaggerations. I haven’t kept up with him, and can’t offer an opinion on what he’s done in the past few years (though like just about the entire audience I was blown away at his NY debut, playing the Grieg concerto with the Baltimore Symphony; I’ve never seen a crowd leap to its feet so eagerly to give anyone an ovation).

But I loved his Beethoven. Maybe, in the slow movement of the Op. 2 sonata, some people might find his emotional expression almost swooning in some softer passages, and might think his forte, when that bursts in, to be too loud. I can’t agree. How, when he was young, would Beethoven have conquered women at salons where he played, if he didn’t play with overwhelming feeling? And remember that his playing — and his music, too — disturbed and sometimes frightened people. So clearly it went to extremes.

Lang Lang, I think, brings that to life. And in the last movement of the Appassionata he does something even more extraordinary, at least to my ear. In three places — two of them essentially identical — he makes me think I’m hearing Beethoven improvise. Beethoven, as I hardly need to say, was a famous improviser, and some people thought his improvisations were more compelling than his compositions.

Listen here and here to the passages where Lang Lang gives me, at least, the sound of Beethoven making the music up on the spot. Especially the second excerpt, where Lang Lang cuts loose with extraordinary freedom, and (I think) unparalleled power. He catches exactly the fantasy of this part of the piece, the breaking of boundaries, the exhilaration of not knowing what crazy idea will come up next.

I’ve rarely heard anything like this, at least in Beethoven, and I love it dearly.

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  1. says

    Good to have you back, Greg.

    The Appassionata I’ve never been able to get out of my head is Alexi Sultanov’s from the 1986 Tchaikovsky competition. Maybe it seems even wilder and more improvisatory to me because he misses so many notes, but it is WILD, and kind of what I picture Beethoven had in mind.

    Didn’t Mr. Lebrecht put the Pears Winterreise on his worst records of all time list? But I agree with you, from what I remember of it it. Such deeply felt artistry.

  2. Gail Starr says

    You nailed it, Greg! That improvisational, driving quality of the nearly out-of-control bass line in the Appassionata is exactly what audiences in 2010 NEED. Without a fresh perspective, the music dies.

  3. says

    In criticism as in so many other arenas, quality counts more than quantity. 😉

    Marc, I really didn’t understand your initial comment. Were you saying that Barenboim and the other pianists you mention have already done what I praised Lang Lang for? Or are you saying that in your view they play the sonata so much better than Lang Lang does, that anything Lang Lang might uniquely do doesn’t really matter?

    In criticism, clarity counts for a lot. As the students in my music criticism class at Juilliard remind me every year, when they pick apart published music reviews that they’ve chosen to analyze.

  4. Greg Sandow says

    A comment was accidentally deleted. I’m restoring it this way.


    I love Lang Lang, but every time that I’ve heard him play classical repertoire I feel that he doesn’t do enough of what makes him great.

    It could very well be the sound on my computer, but I personally don’t see that there’s much fantasy or improvisatory quality to the first excerpt – I could imagine much more – and the second didn’t impact me much either, although listening to it again I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the chain from microphone to MacBook speaker there was a loss of the visceral quality that is so important in music like this.

    — David Saliamonas