Tonight at the Kennedy Center, the much lionized, much loved Lang Lang played that glorious favourite of the repertoire, Edvard Grieg’s lushly romantic Piano Concerto in A minor. And play indeed is the optimal word. We generally use the image unthinkingly, but in his case, there’s more at stake than a mere turn of phrase. There is a sense in which his musical ease segues into a kind of playfulness – serious play at times, but play nonetheless. Perhaps that’s why some critics take issue with him: that he isn’t earnest enough, that he’s a bit of a play-actor. This pianist, who himself has a great affinity with children, treats the classical repertoire almost as if it were child’s play. At least, he did tonight.

Lang Lang © Harald Hoffmann | Sony Classical
Lang Lang
© Harald Hoffmann | Sony Classical
But there’s depth too – of that, there was no doubt: it’s just that he doesn’t helplessly pour himself out over the piano, doesn’t agonize: there doesn’t seem to be masses of pent-up pianistic angst gushing forth despite himself. The first movement cadenza was a case in point: it was a highly staged artifice of virtuosity, its start and end deliberately articulated by hand gestures, of which there are many. Piano ‘camp’ may not be to everyone’s taste: I thought it rather  worked for him. In any case, the whole doesn’t appear to take anything out of him; he remains deliberate and aware at all times. He is not, by any means, an Argerich. But there is room for all kinds in the world of pianistic talent. He is, in fact, at his most alluring when playing around.

One of the features that most impressed in his Grieg rendition tonight, indeed, was precisely this element of wit. One always pays lip service to the folksy Norwegian element of the work, but which of us really knows enough about Scandinavian folk culture to take it other than on faith? Lang Lang conveyed it readily, with a sort of skittishness or rambunctiousness as the occasion demanded. But he was able too to move swiftly to moods more dramatic, sensual intense. Most strikingly was the moment in the Allegro third movement, when after a paroxysm of descent and a scale upwards at terrifying speed, he ended on an exquisite note of lightness, ultra pianissimo. To radically change tone, volume and mood in a split second, without fanfare, notice, or even preparation, marks a great musician from a merely good one The orchestra entered into the spirit of the thing, and although I suspect that there could have been more building of tension at the very opening, and more numinous romanticism in the muted strings in the second movement, the dynamic was largely successful. To enthused ovations, he obligingly tossed off an encore – a jaunty, ludic number, namely Ernesto Lecuona’s Cuban Dance. Well, Cuba does seem to be all the rage in DC at the moment. A neat choice.

Lang Lang’s performance was flanked by two other familiar 19th-century offerings. The Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser with its distinct worlds of sounds – the Pilgrims’ Hymn set against the wild Bacchanal opened the evening. The brass opening failed to resonate – it should get right in there under the crevices, forcing itself on one’s consciousness. The strings were all about heavy full-pressure bowing gave the necessary fullness; the articulation of the fast passages sounded a little less than perfectly crisp in places. Christoph Eschenbach has a supremely physical way of conducting, epitomized in a very expressive back; it must be one of the few professions where that is a most desirable feature. It’s quite interesting to watch. At his most intense, his conducting is volcanic, thrusting up sounds from the depths of the orchestra, and then reining them in. In the overture’s finale, he visibly focused on rousing the brass and left the strings to fend for themselves. For all the power of this choice, I wanted the end bigger and even more volcanic.

Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major is a bright symphony from 1889. (Was anyone cheery in 1889? Dvořák apparently was; the work is signally short on period angst.) From the first expressive voicing of cellos and in due course, some unashamedly up-beat brass, the orchestra gave us a large capacious sound. There was nothing hole-in-the-corner about this music. The Adagio benefited from full-on bowing. Eschenbach is good at laying pressure on sound. That said, the hushed ppp marking the movement’s end was certainly not observed. In short, there was more comfort with loud and big here, and as there’s a lot of loud and big and warding away of fin-de-siècle blues, this served, on the whole, well.

A very enjoyable evening at the Kennedy.