Clueless applause apart, Lang Lang brings depth, insight to Bach’s “Goldbergs” at Arsht Center

By Lawrence Budmen

Lang Lang performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations Thursday night at the Arsht Center in Miami. Photo: Olaf Heine

When Lang Lang came on stage at the Arsht Center on Thursday night, cheers and yelps arose from the near-capacity crowd. That greeting seemed more appropriate to a rock star but the Chinese pianist has become the classical music world’s iteration of one and his popularity remains unabated. 

Despite the vociferous public acclaim, Lang can be a highly uneven pianist—capable of revelatory performances or slapdash accounts of well-trodden repertoire. When he is in top form, the result can be exciting, and that was definitely the case with his traversal of Bach’s monumental Goldberg Variations Thursday night in Miami, which kicked off a 13-city tour.

He commenced the program with Schumann’s Arabesque in C Major. Often played as an encore, the miniature can seem lightweight in superficial readings but Lang found the dreamy aura and poetry beneath the abundant melodies. His nuanced attention to supple details and moderate pacing brought forth the music’s romantic ethos.

The Goldberg Variations is one of the keyboard literature’s highest peaks. Originally conceived for harpsichord, most contemporary performances are adapted to the modern piano. The score consists of an aria and thirty variations with the left-hand bass line of the aria repeated in each variant. Every third section is a canon, replete with dense counterpoint. The penultimate “Quodibet” is a bravura showpiece, followed by a reprise of the aria. For any artist, the challenge of this score is to master its complexities and offer a coherent overview that avoids clinical monotony or affectation.

Taking all of the repeats in each section, Lang’s performance lasted ninety minutes. His cogent, lucid reading was carefully calibrated. Tempos were well considered and relations between sections adeptly conveyed. Dance is central to Bach’s music and the pianist’s rhythmic incisiveness made the fast variations sparkle. 

From the initial statement of the aria, his touch was light and sensitive. The canons were grandiose in scale with contrapuntal voices clean and transparent. Trills and arpeggiated moments were rendered with impeccable precision. Avoiding the temptation to go for bombast in the rapid movements, Lang’s dynamic palette was finely variegated. In the slow variations, his soft tones and flowing line suggesting almost spiritual solace.

The famous “black pearl” variation (No. 25) emerged almost like a threnody, at once soulful and dark within stately Baroque dimensions. Brisk and effervescent, the “Quodibet” balanced drama and virtuosity with accuracy and sterling musicianship.

Unfortunately, much of the audience applauded and cheered at its conclusion, oblivious to the the fact that the work was not yet completed. Lang sat with his head bowed at the piano until quiet was restored but the unique spell of his performance was broken by the interruption. The long sculpted phrases in the reprise of the aria were now more reflective and majestic, like the completion of a multi-faceted musical journey.

Th renewed cheers brought the pianist back for an encore of Chopin’s Mazurka in D Major, Op. 33, no. 2. Lang Lang’s way with Chopin harks back to a former generation of pianists. Bold syncopations and judiciously applied rubato abound. He clearly was enjoying tossing off the dance with zest and it was wonderful to hear his technique now fully recovered from the hand injury that caused him to cease concertizing several years ago. The entire evening demonstrated that, at his best, Lang Lang remain a pianist to be reckoned with.


Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment

Fri Mar 11, 2022
at 11:34 am
No Comments