Manchester audiences hand out standing ovations once in a blue moon, but that which followed Lang Lang’s Mozart and Chopin programme tonight was the loudest and longest I have seen, after the brilliant Chinese pianist thrilled and delighted a sold-out Bridgewater Hall.

Lang Lang © Xun Chi
Lang Lang
© Xun Chi

The choice of programme was interesting, combining the relative simplicity of Mozart’s early sonatas with the complexities of Chopin. The brilliant virtuosity displayed in Chopin’s four Ballades spoke for itself, but in the Mozart, Lang Lang produced a brilliant and unexpected array of effects. He played with a relatively firm tone from the outset of his first sonata, K283, and continued in the same manner, finding considerable depth of sound without smudging textures. He gave an impressively full bodied finale to the sonata, with some large outbursts in the central section. Around this, his ability to make the central parts of a line sing within the longer contours of the phrase was remarkable.

The Sonata in E flat K282 opens with an unusually reflective Adagio movement, to which Lang Lang brought a wonderfully introspective touch. He played with an almost woodwind-like softness of touch here, and lingered on some subtle pauses to excellent effect. Interestingly, he launched straight into the turbulent A minor Sonata K310 without a pause, quickly finding some enormous power and intensity. An enthusiastic burst of applause followed, before some fabulously warm expressiveness in the slow movement, especially beautiful in the late reappearance of the first theme.

Lang Lang’s Mozart sometimes came across like the work of a mid-Romantic composer, with a huge range of expression, from thundering grandeur to softly sighing pianissimo. The requisite light touch was always present when called upon, but he showed himself quite willing to indulge in rubato and free dynamic interpretation. A few of the more aggressive sforzando accents felt overdone, but the superb wit and often simple elegance which coloured his playing showed just what a delight Mozart can be.

Chopin’s four Ballades, written between 1831 and 1843, formed a very well-planned second half. There was astonishing virtuosity on show from early in no. 1, capriciously swinging between themes with ease and playing with thrilling vigour in the final passage. In no. 2 another display of formidable control was on show, with fingers flying across the keyboard, but Lang Lang also managed to draw out some subtle inner lines amidst the flurries of notes.

There was a great deal of showmanship in much of the programme, but in no. 3 the grinning pianist seemed to particularly enjoy himself, shooting knowing smiles into the audience at appearances of the main theme or an exotic chord. There was a lilting spring in the step of the later variations, leading to a final few minutes full of enormous joy and light. The final Ballade closed proceedings in a beautifully reflective mood. A sense of spaciousness and gentle melancholy made for a perfect end to Chopin’s beautifully-formed set.

After an enormous reception, Lang Lang returned to the stage for several encores. He delivered the first, a dancing Rondo alla Turca with great humour, and by the time he had given another two, he had the audience fully within his control, holding them to rapt silence for several moments. They left in ebullient spirits.

*****