Variations on a theme

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 13.05.2022

It’s Wednesday evening and Lang Lang enters a fully packed Grand Auditorium. His last appearance in Luxembourg dates back to the 2015/2016 season as he had to cancel his 2019 concert due to health reasons. He returns to the stage with modesty and without further ado starts the ambitious evening program of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, 32 pieces of music, preceded by Robert Schumann’s Arabesque in C major, with a lightness, a routine. What follows is an excellent performance. It proves that attending a concert by Lang Lang is a once in a lifetime experience for a music lover.

The Goldberg Variations are a classic in the solo piano repertoire. They are voluminous and primarily written in G major, consist of an aria, its 30 variations, a progression of ten groups of three, and then end with the aria in its identical form. This extensive composition is dense. Its frameworks and constraints truly show the brilliance of its creator, a brilliance that is matched by Lang Lang. The work was probably named after its first performer, the baroque virtuoso Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a former student of Bach, who was performing the variations for Count Kayserlingk, Ambassador of the Russian Empire, during his sleepless nights. The pieces of music engaged the full mental attention of the insomniac. On the occasion of Lang Lang’s solo concert at the Philharmonie, the variations are accurately preceded by Robert Schumann’s delicate yet elaborate Arabesque in C major. Bach was greatly rediscovered and listened to in Romantic times and had a significant influence on Schumann’s compositions. Lang Lang, who is often considered the best classical piano player of our times, is said to have been inspired at the age of two after seeing an episode of Tom and Jerry, The Cat Concerto, on TV. This anecdote becomes important when you keep in mind that this variation, the old technique of modification of melody, rhythm, counterpoint or timbre can be found in jazz. Lang Lang takes inspiration from many sources, classical and contemporary and he is able to play Bach’s music by making it his own, bringing it into the present through his free and contemporary style. He creates something timeless.

Lang Lang, who started playing the piano at the age of three, won The International Tchaikovsky Prize at the age of 13 and performed with the Chicago symphony orchestra at 17, after having moving from China to the United States. He is a major cultural figure who has its roots in classical music but doesn’t fear the proximity and exchange with the world of pop, having performed with the likes of Pharrell Williams or Metallica. At only 33 years of age, he has played for four American presidents, for the pope and at Barack Obama’s Nobel Prize Ceremony. The star has nevertheless kept his down to earth aura and interacts directly with the audience. His performance and personality make a challenging classical repertoire seem accessible, fun and contemporary.

The Goldberg Variations were originally composed for a harpsichord with two keyboards, which is mentioned in Bach’s original score.Lang Lang thus virtuously plays many pieces crossing his hands. He does this with his very own theatricality. As an artist he immerses himself in the music without glorifying nor romanticizing it. He takes us into his world, the one that he has known for 30 years. With the quietest and most subtle pianissimo and a virtuous tempo, he displays a velocity that surpasses mere technicality. His hands fly over the keyboard at an ungraspable speed. Paired with his trademark laidback cool, his performance transmits a real maturity at the age of 33. He plays as if he was breathing. With his neck slightly bent backwards he uses grand gestures, making this two hour concert a performance for the ears and the eyes.

By the end of the evening, after the monumental encore – Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante Nb. 1 and Lang Lang’s reinterpretation of a Chinese folk song Jasmine Flower – the audience is completely smitten by the showman’s charm. His freedom of interpretation gives a signature to each piece of the diverse repertoire. Having internalised the score to perfection, he reinterprets and carries the classics in an elegant and unique way. On this particular evening Lang Lang adhered to the logic of the brilliant repertoire with exact precision and without sentimentalism, showing how baroque can still surprise us: Baroque, spectacular!

Anastasia Chaguidouline
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