Chopin provides the highlights in Lang Lang’s mixed recital at Arsht Center

By Lawrence Budmen

Lang Lang performed Tuesday night at the Arsht Center in Miami. Photo: Haiqiang Lv

Lang Lang has been a major presence on the world’s concert stages for more than two decades. He has acquired celebrity status that extends beyond the normal audience for classical concerts. 

That was fully evident Tuesday night when he played a recital of romantic scores at the Arsht Center, the concluding event of the center’s classical series for the season. The hall was packed with adoring fans. Many students and young people filled the balconies and choral loft behind the stage.

The tension between the Chinese pianist as celebrity and artist has always been frustrating and enigmatic. He can play with sensitivity and expressive depth, as in his 2022 Miami performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. At other times, his performances can be eccentric and lacking in coherence. Both sides of his musical personality were in evidence on this occasion.

After a prolonged, cheering welcome, Lang Lang opened with Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane. His initial statement of the vignette’s alluring melody was strangely matter of fact and the central episode overly percussive. The arpeggiated trills in the Fauré were perfectly placed and the final restatement of the main theme was given considerably more sensitivity.

Before the applause had ceased, he immediately launched into Schumann’s Kreisleriana, which showed that a hand injury several seasons ago has not diminished his rock-solid technique. Lang Lang tended to take Schumann’s bipolar, shifting mood swings to extremes; at times effectively and, at others, considerably less so. The opening passages were bombastic while the second section, despite some lovely coloration, emerged overly slow and extended. Moments of rhythmic acuity and romantic sweep were offset by exaggerated fast and slow tempos and dynamics. The score’s final segments were taken at a glacial pace. While the pianist did capture much of the work’s underlying tension, a sense of proportion was conspicuously lacking. This Kreisleriana could not approach the cogent, idiomatic reading Stephen Hough brought to this music at a 2022 recital.

An entirely different Lang Lang returned after intermission. Chopin has long been his métier and the concert’s second half devoted to the compeer displayed the pianist at his best. 

Twelve mazurkas and a polonaise showcased his feeling for the pulse and moody, at times sad, undertones of these dance pieces.  The Mazurka in B-flat Major, Op. 7, no.3 and the D-flat Major, Op. 30, no. 3 were bold and grand in scope. Contrasts of tonal shading and volume resounded with feeling. The E minor Op. 17, no. 2 Mazurka was given ample space and Lang Lang’s deliberate pacing allowed the passionate emotion beneath the work’s gleamy dancing surface to shine through. 

B-flat minor was a key Chopin excelled at and Lang Lang struck a nice balance between the ballroom and salon  in the Op. 24, No. 4 Mazurka, the piece almost sounding like a waltz under his fleet fingers. There was rollicking lightness and propulsion in the penultimate Op. 33, no. 2 in D Major and the concluding C-sharp minor Mazurka, Op. 59, no. 3 resounded in a big boned yet lithe manner.

The brisk, insistent version of the Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44 that concluded the program was undeniably exciting, if slightly breathless. Wide octaves and hand crossings were spanned with precision and the middle section was embellished by multi-hued coloration and aristocratic grace. This was Chopin writ large in scale and dynamic in presentation.

Lang Lang turned to pop music for his encore which excited his audience again showcasing his crossover appeal.

The 2025 Arsht Center classical series opens January 16 with Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a Bellini-Schubert-Tchaikovsky program. Sir Antonio Pappano leads the London Symphony Orchestra with violinist Janine Jansen as soloist in Bernstein’s Serenade on March 2. 

March 19 brings the Israel Philharmonic under Lahav Shani playing works by Avni, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky. The series concludes March 22 with Gianandrea Noseda conducting the National Symphony of Washington, DC and Hilary Hahn playing Korngold’s Violin Concerto.

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