Ludwig Van Beethoven
One of my first reviews for Enjoy the Music.com was of a Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto by Lang Lang and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim. This was at the very beginning of the pianist's career -- he'd just appeared on the cover of a recent Gramophone with much adulatory copy, and I was curious to know what all the fuss was about. Not much, I had to conclude after listening to a performance that (to me at least) produced no sense of drama or urgency, and in the end sounded "calculated, mannered, and violently affected." It was, as I said at the time, "sui generis, the worst Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto I've ever heard." That it remains, but recently I found myself wondering if the pianist hadn't matured somewhat in the intervening years. Given his busy schedule, how can he not have developed his skills as an interpretive artist? After all, critics still respond to him with superlatives, and one can think of no current pianist who has generated a more loyal or enthusiastic following. In fact one such critic, quoted in the notes for this new Beethoven disc, lauds the performances contained therein as "transcendent."
I guess I would agree with that assessment if you consider "transcendent" to mean being hit on the head with a frying pan. Lang Lang and Eschenbach seem less interested in playing Beethoven than in beating the living crap out of him. Less subtle performances can hardly be imagined. Though Lang Lang's indisputably superb technique dispatches the allegros in the First Concerto with impressive clarity and speed, his brusque, graceless phrasing and heavy-handed attempts at humor rob the work of spontaneity and joy. It doesn't help that he self-consciously slows for lyric passages, as if to italicize the sensitivity of his playing. The largo begins with a refreshing inwardness, a true sense of contrast to the extroverted character of the first and last movements. But Lang Lang is incapable of sustaining the mood or shaping the music dramatically, and what began so promisingly ends with indecisive noodling.
The Fourth Concerto, a greater and more demanding work, sets these deficiencies in even bolder relief. As is so often the case with Beethoven, contrast is at the very heart of the work as a whole; throughout, the composer delights in setting quiet against loud, gentle against rough, reticent against assertive. The dialogue between soloist and orchestra in the second movement, "Orpheus taming the wild beasts," is only the most obvious example. That crucial sense of contrast is altogether absent here. Lang Lang's insistent, overemphatic playing reduces the music to superficial glitter, merely an occasion for virtuoso display. Oddly, I was reminded of Katherine Hepburn's hammy overacting in "A Bill of Divorcement," her first film. "Relax, kid, you got the part," you want to shout at her. Of course, Hepburn soon found ways to put her virtuosity at the service of the characters she was playing. Maybe one day Lang Lang will do the same. But after suffering through these exhausting performances, I seriously doubt it. On the cover of the album, the pianist is leaning back against a railing with his arms and legs spread apart, his head turned to the sky, like some exotic bird about to take flight--a picture that speaks a thousand words. I suspect Lang Lang is content to remain more a phenomenon than an artist, an ego with breakneck digits.
Eschenbach's typically blunt approach perfectly complements the pianist's. As for the orchestra, the recording makes it impossible to tell how well or ill they're playing. There have been some remarkably fine-sounding concerto recordings of late -- the Brahms performances by Nelson Friere and Riccardo Chially and the Leipzig Gewandhaus, for example. This certainly isn't one of them. The pianist is pushed almost grotesquely to the fore, the orchestra crowded into the rear. You can just about make out the upper register--fiddles, winds, trumpets; but the bass is nonexistent, a tubby swamp. There's no point in recommending alternatives to these performances. Next time you're in the record shop, just blindly reach into the bin of Beethoven Piano Concertos; you're bound to come up with something better than this. Of course, that there are virtually no more record shops to visit or bins to reach into is a question we haven't the time to consider here.