Review: Lang Lang, Classical Music’s Superstar, Returns Quietly

Posted July 8, 2018 5:37 p.m. EDT

LENOX, Mass. — Let’s just get this out of the way: There was no sign that Lang Lang, the superstar pianist and patron saint of sold-out gala concerts, was in pain Friday night as he sailed through his first major performance since injuring his left hand more than a year ago.

You could even say he seemed like a new man as he — for the most part — avoided his trademark flamboyance in favor of a gentle, controlled performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to open its Tanglewood season here, on a program that included the “Magic Flute” overture and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

Lang’s return, in front of thousands of people at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed, was being watched by orchestras and music industry insiders everywhere. The endlessly bankable star injured himself in April 2017 while preparing Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand; since then, he has been largely out of commission. He has maintained an active presence on his personal YouTube channel, where he posts informal, upbeat messages about his recovery.

Still, Lang has built his reputation — to the dismay of critics and the delight of audiences — on flashy performances of Romantic war horses. Whether he is ready to return to that repertoire remains unclear.

Friday’s program was originally meant to feature Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, not the Mozart. And it’s hard to resist reading into that change: The Tchaikovsky is taxing on any player, with hammered chords, dizzying runs and grand, Romantic flourishes. It would have been perfectly on brand for Lang in better days.

Fortunately for Lang, Mozart’s concerto places the burden on the right hand, which is tasked with runs and rhythmic complexity while the left often sets the mood with chords placed neatly on the beat. But that doesn’t mean the piece is any less difficult. Where Tchaikovsky’s concerto dazzles with surface-level pyrotechnics, Mozart’s calls for more understated virtuosity.

The C-minor concerto is one of Mozart’s most dramatic; yet its angst and gloom mostly simmer, only rarely coming to a boil. This is where the piece becomes a challenge for Lang, whose theatricality is out of place amid gently gliding runs played at a near pianissimo.

But, from the moment he made his solo entrance in the first movement, it was clear this wasn’t a typical Lang Lang performance; nor was it the same jab-happy interpretation he brought to his recording of the concerto in 2014. Now, he was playing with such softness and unpretentious delicacy that I could barely hear him over the wind rustling through the trees — and I mean this as a compliment.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the concerto. Habits are hard to break, and Lang’s crept into the performance as the piece progressed. The second movement opens with a naively pure theme ripe for interpretation; instead, Lang infused it with drama, sinking heavily into the keys while playing a melody with the simplicity of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Lang was most animated in the finale, at one point practically dancing in place. So I decided to close my eyes, which is when I noticed a disconnect between the sight and sound of his performance. What I heard was dynamic and inquisitive, by turns capable of grandiosity and suspenseful quiet; but when I opened my eyes again, his right hand was a full foot above the keyboard.

He received an uproarious ovation, which came to a halt when he returned for an encore: Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 in C sharp minor — haunting at barely more than a whisper, though he couldn’t help but occasionally exaggerate his movement when an inward style would have been even more riveting.

Not that this seemed to matter to his fans. From the start, the teenage girls in my row had planned to rush the stage, which they did before and after the Chopin. And, as Lang exited after his final bow, he threw his handkerchief into the crowd. “That,” I heard a woman behind me say, “is star power, honey.”

Additional Information:

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Performed Friday at the Tanglewood Music Festival.