Few classical artists command as much attention, and even fewer can guarantee a full house at the Royal Albert Hall, as Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang. Not to mention inspiring millions of Chinese children to take up the piano, and encouraging many others around the world to venture into a concert hall for the first time. Such is the power of “the Lang Lang effect”. This was the first of two concerts Lang Lang is giving in London, with a curious hotchpotch of a programme and some unexpected repertoire choices from the pianist who is famed for his outstanding technical facility and piano pyrotechnics.

Lang Lang © Harald Hoffmann | Sony Classical/CAMI
Lang Lang
© Harald Hoffmann | Sony Classical/CAMI

I last saw Lang Lang live at the Proms in 2002, when he performed Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra. Still a teenager, he wasn’t that well known in the West and certainly had not developed the extravagant gestures and rock-star status. Today he is a global superstar, the Chinese poster-boy who fills the biggest international concert halls with crowds of eager fans.

There was less hoopla surrounding this concert than I was expecting. People took their seats quietly and waited expectantly for the concert to begin. As the lights dimmed, a little girl next to me whispered “He’s coming!”, and then he was striding onto the stage (placed in the middle of the arena of the Royal Albert Hall), smiling broadly and lapping up the applause.

The opener, Bach’s Italian Concerto, was upright and colourful with a precise rhythmic bite and clear sense of orchestral lines and voices in the outer movements. The middle movement was a study in intensity and measured elegance, the melody floating over an insistent bass line as if improvised there and then. The big screens, hanging from the ceiling of the hall, showed close ups of Lang Lang’s hands at work, and his facial expressions. During the slow movement of the Bach, we saw a different side to Lang Lang: momentarily, he seemed totally immersed in the music, his expression reflective, his gestures modest.

Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, a suite of twelve pieces with evocative titles (“By the Hearth”, “Song of the Lark”, “On the Troika” for example) to suggest the individual characteristics of the months of the year, seemed an odd repertoire choice for such a big venue. These intimate salon pieces revealed Lang Lang to be a master of sensitive passagework and the most delicate pianissimos, sadly largely lost in the cavernous acoustic and humming air conditioning of the Albert Hall. However, by the time we reached June, a melancholic barcarolle, the audience was growing restive and it was evident that many people craved more noisy virtuosic playing. The more upbeat movements were tossed out with clanging fortissimos, the close ups on the big screens giving away the reason for this overly bright sound: fingers poking and prodding at the keys.

The second half was given over to Chopin’s four Scherzi. Prior to Chopin, a scherzo was a work of cheerful or humorous character. With Chopin, the genre is is marked with unprecedented drama and form, and his expansive one-movement Scherzi are expressive and volatile, full of sudden contrasts and violent shifts of mood, shot through with moments of singing serenity and hymn-like melodies. If the audience demanded showy piano wizardry, they were amply rewarded by Lang Lang in these works: frenzied thunderous passages, dark rolling arpeggios and crashing chords combined with his trademark elaborate gestures. But just as in the slow movement of the Bach concerto, the quieter and more introspective passages were played with unexpected sensitivity and subtly veiled dynamics. Sadly, however, there was little insight nor probing musical thought as Chopin’s expressive narratives were rendered into showpieces, all surface artifice and no real substance. Not that this mattered, for this performance was more about Lang Lang than Fryderyk Chopin.

The encores were predictable: Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante, taken at a manic tempo, was merely self-indulgent. The second, a Chinese piece evoking swaying fronds of coral, was pleasant, with some charmingly veiled dyamics. The third was composed by Lang Lang himself when he was 15 and which he described as “good for a ring tone”. The final encore, Spring Overture, also a Chinese work, was “pretty cool” by Lang Lang’s own admission, and was a suitably boisterous end to the concert.

There is no mistaking Lang Lang's passion for and enjoyment in the piano and concert giving, sharing his music with his adoring fans. His performances are entertainment in the best sense of the word, but are perhaps not for those who crave more searching playing, humility and an ability to stand back and allow the music to speak for itself.

***11