In his latest musical journey devoted to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Lang Lang, beloved by audiences for his over-the-top bravura talent while notoriously confronted by critics about his self-indulgent displays in mannered readings, shows himself from a more reflective side.
At 38 years old, recently married and soon to become a father, the artist, who has achieved superstardom of international renown like no other young pianist, has also dealt with his share of hardship during his childhood hothouse training in China, and more recently, a daunting bout of tendonitis that sidelined him from the concert stage.
Illustration: by Masha Potemkin
Lang Lang’s Goldberg project was geared to be the opening act of a new beginning with his return from Sony to Universal Music Group, and its label Deutsche Grammophon, just as planned concert tours were abruptly halted by the worldwide pandemic. In its wake, strategic marketing for the Goldberg four-CD set has brought about “Lang Lang Discovers,” a social media series featuring excerpts of filmed interviews and snippets of personal moments, easily accessible on Lang Lang’s Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages. It turns out to be a good time for virtual exploration of this kind, and—as he freely acknowledges—a great time for a little bit of contemplation:
“I’ve moved into new terrain with the Goldberg Variations, and really immersed myself fully in this project. My goal as an artist is to keep becoming more self-aware and more knowledgeable, as well as to keep offering inspiration to others. It’s an ongoing process, but this project has taken me a little further along the path.”
With captivating virtual narratives, each of these episodes documents the investigative layers of Lang Lang’s effort to wrestle with one of Western classical music’s quintessential scores.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s towering German Baroque treasure has inspired Lang Lang to explore different approaches, claiming his place even more solidly in the classical music canon.
With an outcome that highlights his personal flair for exalted originality, Lang Lang delivers a double take on the Goldberg: not one, but two versions, one live-recorded during a momentous concert before an audience at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, Bach’s gravesite and the epicenter of his influence, and the other a studio recording at the renowned Emil Berliner Studios. The latter recording offers a more perfected compilation of detail-oriented finesse achieved in the studio, compared to the former: a more spontaneous exploration that preserves the expressively captivating aspects of the live performance. The result is an interesting pairing that captures the different choices, offering, as Lang Lang describes: “the best of two worlds.”
What innocently began more than 20 years ago has become an intense dialogue with the piece, which has led the pianist to seek out the expertise of other artists, like the eminent conductor Christoph Eschenbach, Lang Lang’s former discoverer, and cembalist Andreas Staier.
Aware of the piece’s performance legacy, Lang Lang has previously paid tribute to the legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, performing on Gould’s CD 318 Steinway during his 2012 concert at the Canadian National Arts Center. ( photo)
Gould is renowned for both of his idiosyncratic recordings of the Goldberg—one earlier in his life, one later—and his own saga to capture the work’s enigmatic authenticity is extensively documented on film.
Moving from the lovely aria in G’s pensive bass line and chord progressions, its 30 variations develop into ingenious flights of dance-like movements, filled with tremendous joy and profound melancholy throughout their harmonic changes. With its final return to the aria’s melodic theme, the piece evokes a cathartic response and spirituality around eternal existence, and its transformation in time. While Gould and Lang Lang arrive at significantly different artistic assessments, both interpretations share a unique blend of calculated detachment and intimately personal response.
To observe the transformative process and its reflective qualities, Lang Lang’s tempi choices become arduously slow, making his Goldberg a good twenty minutes longer than, say, Gould’s. At times, choosing such extremely slow tempi, almost coming to halt its metric pulse, edges towards derailing the piece’s rhythmic balance. Lang Lang acknowledges the dangers of this path, but deems it necessary to fully recognize the piece’s meditative character.
Watch Lang Lang's personal introductions to the Goldberg from Perking:
Lang Lang is a sensitive pianist with prodigious technical facility, and his ambition to show his intentions in an illustrative way at times inhibits his artistic delivery. In the Goldberg, this applies equally to the somewhat redundant treatments of trills in their differing returns. His true virtuosity, however, comes out in his original inner voice—his articulation, transparent tone texture, and thrillingly executed passage work with glass-clear shaping of its interwoven structures. His melodic shaping adds a beautiful expressiveness to the piece’s pulsing synchronization, which, when he upholds it, works incredibly well. When it comes to creating intimacy that engages his audiences in the process of his music making, Lang Lang possesses undisputable authority.
“Lang Lang Discovers” offers revelatory glances into the artist’s process, and he is a generous host. With great transparency, he shares his unending quest to approach mastery and express his love for music. Leading by example, Lang Lang demonstrates his continuous desire to learn and understand, so his listeners—many of them eager piano students around the world—can effortlessly identify with his fervor while he remains good-humored and an even-tempered conversationalist for all. In the process, Lang Lang becomes an emissary of music—an ambassador—bridging cultural barriers and borders, a role he has actively pursued throughout his career.
His iconic rise to stardom has been credited with millions of followers in his native China, creating a new landscape within the music industry and setting off a torrent of piano pursuers who hope to become the next Lang Lang. The pianist believes in the nourishing quality of his mission:
“Bringing yourself in. Breathing together from our deepest soul and heart. Music brings us to be a more creative person, more sensitive and empathic…. We need to promote this art to everyone. If I love it so much—and I am not from a classical music country—there will be no boundaries.”
Lang Lang has succeeded in creating an image that defies all the established stereotypes of classical music, bringing it to new audiences and helping them relate to the form. In my eyes, that makes him deserving of the attention he is getting, and if he continues his driven efforts, Lang Lang, like Gould, will have another go at the Goldberg down the line. His iconic live performance at St. Thomas Church will be broadcast on the Deutsche Grammophon (Virtual) Stage on November 19th.