After intermission, Mr. Lang closed the concert with Frederic Chopin’s Twelve Etudes (Op. 25). This is music in which Mr. Lang is completely in his element, and his performance of these fearsomely difficult pieces was a marvel of extraordinary technical skill.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
On Saturday afternoon and evening, a Nor’easter buried much of the region under several feet of ice and snow. The following afternoon at Symphony Hall, its musical equivalent arrived in Boston as the superstar pianist Lang Lang performed a questing and engaging recital of works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, and Frederic Chopin.
Mr. Lang is no stranger to Boston, though this was his first appearance here since 2009. On this occasion, the Celebrity Series presented his recital; President and Executive Director Gary Dunning provided brief welcoming remarks and thanked the concert’s sponsors, Eleanor and Frank Pao.
The pianist, dressed conservatively in a black suit and white, open-collar shirt, began his recital with a peculiar reading of Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat (BWV 825). Mr. Lang’s critics often fault his expressive excesses in performance, though very few were apparent on Sunday; rather, there were several points in his reading of this particular piece where Mr. Lang seemed uncertain of what exactly to do with the music.
The first movement began the work promisingly. The Baroque partita is typically a collection of six or seven dance movements, and Bach’s keyboard partitas generally begin with some sort of non-dance, introductory movement. Though his overall tempo was on the slower side, Mr. Lang’s reading of this Praeludium was notable for its clear textures and a truly subtle use of the pedal.
The second and third movements, however, were highly idiosyncratic. The second movement Allemande—which is traditionally a stately and serious dance—was taken at a brisk clip, its fine textures made blurry and indistinct as a result. The Courante that follows is supposed to be played at a relatively fast tempo, and Mr. Lang obliged this convention—for a little while. Midway through the first part of the movement, though, he subjected the music to a succession of peculiar tempo shifts that made no sense musically or dramatically. This habit continued through the second half of the movement, until the piece ground to a stop at a considerably slower pace than it had begun.
Happily, Mr. Lang seemed to find his way again in the slow fourth movement, the Sarabande. For the first time in the afternoon there was a real sense of conviction in his playing, of having something to say about this music. As in the opening Praeludium, Mr. Lang’s textures were clearly enunciated, and his dynamic shadings added much to the movement’s overall affect.
The Menuet and Gigue that conclude the Partita also benefited from the preceding Sarabande. The Menuet danced with much grace and charm, while the closing Gigue—which easily could have become a vehicle solely for Mr. Lang’s formidable technique—was played with surprising delicacy and nuance.
On the whole, I would like to have heard more consistency from Mr. Lang in taking repeats throughout the Partita and in providing something by way of contrast or embellishment in those repeats he did take. His quirks notwithstanding, there was quite a bit to like in this performance, particularly in his readings of the final three movements.
Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat (D. 960) stood at the heart of Mr. Lang’s program. This Sonata was Schubert’s last work in the genre: he completed it in September 1828, roughly two months before his death in a Viennese typhus epidemic at the age of 31. Many commentators (the author of the recital’s sometimes pretentious program notes included) go to great lengths to distance Schubert’s late music from the shadow of Beethoven, though the latter’s influence is strongly evident throughout this work.
The first movement, a sprawling, 20-minute long essay, was taken at a steady, relaxed tempo. Though Mr. Lang’s sense of the movement’s pacing and structure came across clearly, I felt that he could have given greater definition to the several characteristic themes in its exposition. As things stood, his reading was technically solid but expressively ambiguous—the long stretches of soft playing brought to mind Robert Schumann’s comment on the “heavenly length” of Schubert’s last symphony; in the first movement of this last sonata, that latter quality was emphasized at the expense of the former. The development section offered a pleasant contrast, as Mr. Lang imbued the music with an improvisational quality that built to a stormy climax before the beginning of the recapitulation. In this final section, though, the playing returned to the monochromatic character of the exposition.
The slow second movement fared as slow movements did in this recital, which is to say very well. Mr. Lang again found the emotional core of the music, and in his performance, its quarter-hour duration passed quickly. Of particular note were the rich sonorities he drew from the lower range of the piano and his clear projection of the movement’s structure and inherent drama. Also remarkable was his playing of the tolling, octave figure that accompanies both of the movement’s principle melodies. In the first melody, heard in the minor mode, this figure builds to a great climax, pealing like a funeral bell. The second melody appears in the major mode with the same accompanimental gesture, though now the mood is gentle and peaceful. Mr. Lang captured this contrast to great effect.
I would like to have heard Mr. Lang play up the zanier aspects of the third movement Scherzo—it is, after all, strangely humorous music, filled with odd phrases and peculiar harmonic shifts—but his straightforward reading proved an effective foil to the seriousness of the preceding movement. His performance of the fourth movement finale was brilliant. Here, all of the interpretive challenges that seemed to get the better of him in the first and third movements vanished: each of the themes was strongly defined, and Mr. Lang displayed a strong sense of the movement’s overall character and dramatic trajectory; the closing measures were played with gusto.
After intermission Mr. Lang closed the concert with Frederic Chopin’s Twelve Etudes (Op. 25). This is music in which Mr. Lang is completely in his element, and his performance of these fearsomely difficult pieces was a marvel of extraordinary technical skill. There were numerous high points in his performance, though for me the apex was reached in Mr. Lang’s interpretation of the slow seventh Etude (in C-sharp minor), which received a deeply felt reading that emphasized the movement’s darker colors. The last three Etudes are probably the most famous of the set, and each received a strongly characteristic performance in which Mr. Lang drew out effective contrasts between their varied textures and moods.
An enormous ovation followed, and Mr. Lang responded with not one but two encores by this year’s bicentennial birthday-boy, Franz Liszt: the Romance in E minor and La campanella. The former was played with great delicacy and sensitivity—quite the display of control following the demands of the Chopin Etudes—while the pyrotechnics of the latter were dispatched with breathtaking ease.