Lang Lang, classical music’s piano-playing rock star

Lang Lang performs during the German Media Award on March 21, 2014 in Baden-Baden, Germany. Picture: Getty Images
Lang Lang performs during the German Media Award on March 21, 2014 in Baden-Baden, Germany. Picture: Getty Images
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He’s the the world’s most famous pianist, yet 
Lang Lang’s flamboyant style has divided critics. Now Edinburgh audiences will have their chance to see classical music’s rock star in action

There’s a whole lot of ego descending on Edinburgh this week. He’s 33, Chinese, boyishly trendy, has a headline-grabbing back story of childhood misery and parental domination, and plays the piano with an exaggerated genius that falls somewhere between the tasteful individuality of his hero Vladimir Horowitz and the outlandish showmanship of piano’s former king of camp, Liberace.

He is one of the world’s most talked about pianists. By next Saturday, the Lang Lang circus will have come and gone, leaving in its wake an impression that something big, brash and controversial breezed into town. Musical debate will be fuelled. Every Usher Hall seat will have been filled, twice over – that’s guaranteed. Reaction will be divided. A new app will be launched in his name to keep the promotional momentum going on a series of piano tutors he published last year. The question will remain: Lang Lang – celebrity showman or serious musician?

A more pertinent question might be: does it matter? Eight years ago, a group of eminent French music critics were made to listen to seven recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 1 without being told who the respective soloists were. The collective decision favoured Lang Lang’s performance. Without preconception of who it was, and without being able to see the pianist’s trademark wild gestures and facial contortions, Lang Lang’s musicality was deemed supreme.

Yet, there’s no doubt he likes to make a show of things, and it’s that rocket-fuelled visual display – hands leaping wildly into the air to the extent his whole body ends up almost prostrate on the piano stool – that sticks in people’s minds, or sticks in their craw, or both. Interestingly, the critics who once dismissed him as a virtuoso circus act that refused to grow up are gradually revising their opinions. His millions of fans, though, have never wavered from their idolisation.

There’s plenty opportunity this week to make our own judgement. Lang Lang is at the Usher Hall on Wednesday evening, starring in Bartok’s hi-octane Piano Concerto No 2 with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen, returning on Friday with a solo recital programme that, in its international travels over the past year – it completely filled the Royal Albert Hall twice over in the space of 48 hours – has further fuelled the debate, but generally found in Lang Lang’s favour.

According to the Los Angeles Times’ critic, “[his] physical poses – which never really bothered me but drove others up the wall – are now less exaggerated, and they serve as a reflection of where the music is going, not a distraction”.

The review of that same Tchaikovsky, Bach and Chopin recital in Chicago – a city less open to LA-style razzmatazz in classical music – was more cautiously accepting. “The boyish-looking pianist certainly has come a long way as a serious classical artist… Still, you never quite know when Lang Lang the flashy entertainer will rear his head, using his considerable gifts more for showy, self-glorifying ends, it would appear, than to fully illuminate the music at hand.”

Amazingly, Lang Lang has come a long, long way from a childhood dominated by his policeman father, who, in order to ensure that his prodigious son got the training he needed to become a concert pianist, gave up his job in Shenyang, left his wife at home as breadwinner, and set up home in a Beijing slum to allow nine-year-old Lang Lang to attend the capital’s Central Conservatory of Music.

The story of his father’s utter ruthlessness is well-documented, including handing Lang Lang pills to overdose on when his teacher suspended him for having “no talent”. Anyone with lesser fortitude and independent spirit would have crumpled under such pressure –think of the sad case of Australian pianist David Helfgott – but Lang Lang came out of it a winner, if radically unorthodox in his approach to playing the piano.

“My father always supported me,” Lang Lang claimed recently. “But when you throw yourself in something as completely as he did, you can go too far. As a kid, I sometimes hated my father. But I gradually understood that he and I shared the same dream. So over time I forgot what he did.”

Lang Lang’s appearances this week mark his Edinburgh International Festival debut, and his first Scottish appearance since 2003 when he performed Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the RSNO. I doubt there will be much contention in his Bartok performance with Salonen and the Philharmonia. Considered one of the most difficult piano concertos of the repertoire, Lang Lang is nothing if not one of the most outstanding technical wizards of his time.

After recording it two years ago with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Sir Simon Rattle said “I know of no other pianist who is able to be more sheerly, uncannily accurate in this piece and then still have the technical ability in reserve to make it dance, make it phrase.”

More accurately, Lang Lang makes it rock, as he illustrates with drummer Mark Guiliana on a mischievous YouTube clip called “Lang Lang – Why Bartok Rocks”, which might seem gimmicky, but offers an insight into what is going on in his mind as he shapes his idiosyncratic, high-energy interpretations.

But what will his solo recital on Friday reveal? It’s a curious programme – Tchaikovsky’s mixed bag of miniatures known collectively as The Seasons, which the Chicago review described (appropriately for Edinburgh) as illustrating “the Jekyll and Hyde side of his [Lang Lang’s] artistic make-up”; Bach’s Italian Concerto, which, by all accounts, finds the pianist bending the Baroque out of accepted recognition in a highly-romanticised version of the slow movement; and Chopin’s Four Scherzos, an Olympian technical challenge that is right up Lang Lang’s street.

It won’t have the giant screens that have given audiences elsewhere the close-up shots of his turbo-charged fingers. But in every other respect, expect music cooked to a classic recipe, but served up as rock ’n’ roll.

• Lang Lang performs with the Philharmonia Orchestra on 19 August, and solo on 21 August, at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh International Festival,