If Lang Lang were only a pianist, he might not be the greatest one alive. Listen to Nelson Freire’s formidable and tender renderings of Liszt, Martha Argerich’s elegantly wild Prokofiev, or Andras Schiff’s penetrating Beethoven, and Lang Lang’s take on each of those composers can seem callow, lacking or just odd. Still, none of those superb musicians adorn posters in the bedrooms of Chinese children, or has netted lucrative sponsorships, or was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.” Lang Lang is a worldwide phenomenon, but not because his rubato is uniquely exquisite (it’s not), or because he can play louder, faster, or more precisely than all his peers (he can’t), or because he plumbs unsuspected depths in music (he doesn’t). It’s true that the 29-year-old Chinese virtuoso has never met a measure of music he couldn’t play with ease, and is obviously having a great time when he plays. But if he’s evolved from a talented kid into a global brand, it’s mostly because his true artistic mission is the creation of his own career, and he has pursued it with matchless dedication and virtuosity.
Lang Lang could only have emerged when and where he did. A rapidly modernizing China supplied his father, Lang Guoren, with both the freedom and the dream to quit his job as a policeman in the industrial city of Shenyang and move with his five-year old son to a Beijing slum. The father was insanely determined to turn the boy into a classical music superstar, even if it meant destroying him in the process. It’s hard for even the most fiercely ambitious parent to imagine urging a child to commit suicide rather than face the shame of mediocrity, but when his nine-year-old son failed to get into the Beijing Central Conservatory, Lang Guoren screamed at him to jump off a high-rise balcony.
China gets an early credit for the production of Lang Lang, but it was the West that completed him. Educated at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute from the age of 15, he quickly learned to harness the elaborate apparatus of star-making: the concert circuit, management teams, PR resources, record labels, fashion, and media machinery. The story came full circle when he became an idol in China, which has a far greater appetite than Europe or the United States for a Chopin-playing rock star.
There are countercultural strains in his story as well. At a time when classical music’s prestige and glamour are flickering, Lang Lang has leveraged it into global celebrity. Recordings are increasingly low-budget affairs of limited circulation, yet he has revived the lavishly produced CD. Culture gets disseminated today mostly in digital vapors, but Lang Lang makes a point of being physically present here, there, and everywhere, keeping a travel schedule that would tax an airline pilot and giving 200 concerts a year. At a time when renown has become Kardashianized and people become famous for doing virtually nothing, and doing it badly, he is both a serious artist and a contender for the title of “Hardest-Working Man in Show Business.”
At 29, Lang Lang the musician is even resisting domination by Lang Lang the concept. For much of his early career (and so far, that’s all he’s had), he has courted the love of audiences and the suspicions of critics with an extreme, extroverted style that treated the composer’s intentions as a starting point for hugely entertaining whizbangery. His trademark was excess, and he took an equal opportunity approach to good taste and tastelessness. There was a sense, though, that all this youthful exuberance was a phase, just part of the trajectory: planned obsolescence, leading to an upgrade.
But maybe that’s not what’s going on.
“After a decade of waiting for Lang Lang to grow up, to get over his circus act and become the magnificent artist that has always seemed to be [his] calling,” wrote the critic Mark Swed, “I finally gave up…and began to accept him for the pianist he is.” The Lang Lang that concert audiences hear most nights now is no longer either prodigy or product, but a performer comfortable with just about any interpretive approach, who flits nonchalantly from the ferocious to the sublime, the mechanical to the eccentric. What distinguishes him as a pianist is not a consistent voice, but a mercurial quality, the feeling that any one bar of music doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the next.
That changeability can be infuriating, it can feel false and superficial, or it can be utterly thrilling. Listen, for instance, to his performance of Chopin’s A-flat Major Polonaise from a live concert he gave in Vienna in 2010. The piece begins with an introduction that accelerates, slows, pauses, and reverses course, until it finally bursts into a joyful dance. Lang Lang exaggerates all the stutter-steps changes almost to the point of psychosis, and when the polonaise rhythm finally strikes up, the tempo remains scarily unstable, as if the dance floor were slicked with oil.
The essence of this playing is spontaneity, which doesn’t jibe well with his perfectionism, or with the demands of a studio recording. Maybe that’s why so many of the tracks on his latest recording “Liszt: My Piano Hero” have a certain stiffness, as if his inspiration and energy hardened a little more with each take. In the 2004 concert recording Live at Carnegie Hall he plays Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 with an oddly fitful beat, but it has a ravishing idiosyncratic energy. He plays the same piece on the “Piano Hero” CD, only now it sounds like the outcome of a strategy. In a performer so dynamic and self-conscious, the discography lags behind the development. But it’s a good bet that as Lang Lang ages, the live recordings will continue to capture this consummate creature of the concert stage, while the studio projects will be polished to a dead sheen.