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RECITAL REVIEW

Lang Lang Anouncing Chopin Encore in Weill (Judy McNeill Photo)

LANG LANG CHRISTENS WEILL HALL WITH MUSICAL SPLENDOR

by Terry McNeill
Saturday, September 29, 2012

The show isnít over until the shouting fades away. With the brand-new Weill Hallís rear wall raised and the evening breezes flowing, the applause from the second and last encore of pianist Lang Langís Sept. 29 opening recital might have been heard all the way to Petaluma. It was that kind of concert, unique and memorable.

After more than a decade of construction delays and massive cost overruns, the centerpiece hall of the Green Music Center finally opened with the Chinese superstar kicking off a gala weekend of symphony, choral and pops events. Before 1,400 inside and an estimated 1,000 outside, the pianist delivered sonic and musical goods that were at all times exceptionally exciting but at others equally perplexing.

The artistís recordings of Haydn sonatas are familiar, but the three Mozart sonatas comprising the entire first half represented Mr. Langís first traversal of these works in public performance. Nonetheless, the characteristics of Mr. Langís Haydn were everywhere in evidence--crisp articulation, scintillating scale passages and sharp rhythmic contrasts. Graceful indeed was the Andante of the Sonata in G, K. 283, and the Presto finale with swift arpeggios and snappy accents was a delight.

More reflective Mozart appeared in the dreamy first movement of the E Flat Sonata, K. 282. Here the pianistís repose and tranquil tempos were captivating, demonstrating that spiritual excitement doesnít have to be strident. The finale was a feast of rapid crystalline scales, generating loud applause from the audience. It was a performance similar to that of Mitsuko Uchida, but with an added layer of Mr. Langís signature romantic mannerisms and subtle teasing of phrase endings.

Mozartís A Minor Sonata, K. 310, dramatically closed the first half. Long rumored to be associated with the death of the composerís mother, the A Minor is tragic throughout. Mr. Lang brought out the sad majesty in the opening Allegro Maestoso, beginning at a furious clip that never subsided until the final three chords. The single-note repetitions in the Andante Cantabile were played slower than usual, with perfectly weighed trills and a singing line in the right hand.

The artist presented a forceful case in the somber but agitated finale. The persistent rhythmic patterns and tricky leaps were accurate, and the momentum was palpable--yet the music never sounded manic. Indeed, all through the Mozart sonatas, Mr. Langís control of pianissimo was superlative, and he deftly shaped trills, often with balanced crescendos. His interpretations may not have been Mozart to everyoneís taste, but I found them effervescent and convincing.

The quartet of Chopin Ballades on the second half is a big undertaking for any pianist, each telling a story of grandeur, pathos and nobility hand in hand with formidable technical demands for the performer. Mr. Lang fearlessly launched into the popular G Minor Ballade, unfolding the narrative enticingly in each of the seven phrase statements. He played the big legato octaves brilliantly and carefully slowed their downward march. The coda was tremendous, drawing a round of bravos from the audience. The pianist clearly had the well-dressed crowd in his musical pocket at this stage of the recital.

A long and simple folk-like introduction begins the F Major Ballade, and Mr. Lang played it with restraint, jumping into the subsequent cascades of sonorities with great passion. His strong fingers carried the day in the coda. This approach continued in the popular A Flat Ballade, arguably the least difficult of the four. Here Mr. Lang was in a playful mood, underscoring an occasional bass note and stretching the rhythms in the recapitulation. His pedaling throughout produced a perfect legato. The last chords exalted.

One of Chopinís greatest creations finished the recital: the F Minor Ballade. Inside of 10 minutes of playing time the genius Polish composer presents a broad range of emotions--ardor, resignation, heroism, majesty. Mr. Langís traversal of this amazing work was at every turn exciting, but the whole was not quite equal to the sum of its parts, more so for what he didnít do than for what he did. Technically Mr. Lang nailed everything. The double-note passages were sharply etched, and he lingered just the right amount of time in the short chorale section. Just before the coda, where the sonic tension has peaked, Mr. Lang played the five pianissimo chords that quelled the fury and heightened the mystery of the stormy final bars. It was mesmerizing and drew a raucous standing ovation.

What Mr. Lang didnít do in the F Minor Ballade and elsewhere was to celebrate the vocal nature, albeit a dark one, in so much of Chopinís music. Toward the end of the Ballade, the great tenor voice and agitated inner left-hand line were sonically lost in the pianistís demonic drive to get to the five leavening chords, the hurricane of the coda and the finishing fortissimo. Nonetheless, the reading elicited a tsunami of applause and cheers extending beyond the video screens outside the hall and across the campus illuminated by a harvest moon.

Mr. Lang offered two encores, beginning with a languorous performance of Chopinís E Flat Nocturne, which although tonally splendid needed some rhythmic flexibility. The D Flat Waltz (Minute) followed, incessantly beguiling in its droll effects. The audience roared approval at the last left-hand staccato note (he didn't play the written chord) and recalled the pianist several more times to the stage.

Lang Lang is a consummate pianist who clearly revels in giving an audience an intoxicating mix of musical artistry and entertainment, a sterling combination for the Weill Hall opening concert.