Lang Lang delivers musical depth along with theatrics at the Kravis Center

By David Fleshler

Lang Lang performed Tuesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Lang Lang performed Tuesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Franz Liszt, who helped create the glamorous, faintly diabolical persona of the virtuoso, would likely have enjoyed Lang Lang.

The Chinese pianist gave a bewitching performance of Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor Tuesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach that was full of theatrics–the hands soaring dramatically over the keyboard, the spinning away from the piano at the end of a climactic phrase, the wildly tossing hair. Yet he coupled the visual show with a searching performance of the sonata, one of the most important piano works of the 19th century.

Lang Lang’s technical mastery was apparent throughout – the hammered double octaves, the fugue from which he effortlessly teased melodies, the sheer, delirious speed. As the notes flew by, his touch at the keyboard could achieve any tone, from foggy dreaminess to laser-like precision.

He did much more than many pianists with the heroic orchestral melody that runs through the work, not just blaring it at fortissimo volume, but stretching it out, holding back for a millisecond or two to give each harmonic change extra weight. The soft-toned theme that forms its counterpart was particularly moving in his hands, with the pianist’s singing tone, slight changes of tempo and sudden pianissimos. Sulfur practically smoked from the dark passages in the bass.

Lang Lang, who will repeat the program Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami, began the concert with Debussy’s Ballade, playing its misty melodies with an effortless, frictionless smoothness, capturing the work’s delicate mood of wistful melancholy.

The second half was all Spanish, with works of Albéniz, Granados and De Falla.

The selections from Albéniz’s Suite Española was the most overtly Spanish in flavor, rich in an atmosphere of guitars, castanets and dusty town squares. Lang Lang played them with a respect for their characteristically Spanish rhythms and turns of phrase, never over-personalizing them.

He snapped off the Spanish rhythms of “Granada,” following with a smoky, atmospheric performance of the languid middle section. In “Sevilla,” “Cádiz” and “Cuba,” there was just the pleasure of hearing a top-flight pianist express Albéniz’s melodic creativity. “Asturias,” famous in its guitar version, was a tense perpetual motion, with Lang Lang holding back on the chords that punctuate the rapid notes to give them an almost brutal force.

The most effective of these Spanish works was the least theatrical, Granados’ “Quejas, o la Maja y el Ruiseñor” from Goyescas. In his hands, the poignant theme grew in weight with each repetition, soft and modest, then booming and passionate, giving the work a cumulative power.

In De Falla’s Danza Ritual del Fuego, Lang Lang became almost a parody of himself, turning the performance into a visual spectacle, his hands rising above the keyboard and coming down with a crash, his right hand snapping away from the piano as if he were ripping a piece of tape off middle C. It was a hard-driving performance, but one that treated the work more as a vehicle for showy physical display than a work of music.

The encore offered a contrast to the previous theatrics, with a performance of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor, playing with dignity, lyricism and restraint.

It’s great that superstar musicians like Lang Lang attract listeners who might never otherwise attend a classical concert. But that may have accounted for the symphony of coughing, the video recording that drew scolding from ushers and the live cell phones that seemed to wait for the quietest moment of every piece to announce their presence. After intermission, following the routine recorded request that audience members silence cell phones, there was a burst of applause.

Lang Lang will repeat the program 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami.; 305-949-6722.

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Wed Feb 22, 2017
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