The New Yorker
The Wow Factor
Lang Lang and Yundi Li at Carnegie Hall.
by Alex Ross April 2, 2007
In the classical-music world of ten or fifteen years ago, you
heard intermittent murmurs of unease about the number of Asian
performers who were showing up on the rolls of conservatories,
in the ranks of orchestras, and on concert stages. The oft-repeated
criticism was that these players showed great technical dexterity
but lacked the mysteries of "depth" and "soul." Such talk had
an unsavory taste; Wagner used to say the same thing about musical
Jews. In any case, the muttering has died down. When Yo-Yo Ma
entrances audiences through the force of his personality, when
Mitsuko Uchida delves deeper into Mozart and Schubert than almost
any pianist alive, and when the virtuosos Lang Lang and Yundi
Li conquer crowds with youthful bravado, notions of an "Asian
type" can be filed away in the archive of dumb generalizations.
The huge popularity of classical music in the Far East, and
particularly in China, has created a talent pool a billion deep,
from which a disarmingly varied group of musicians is emerging.
The irony inherent in the old stereotype is that those fleet-fingered,
impersonal performers (yes, there were some) replicated the
values of a Western conservatory system that has long emphasized
sheer technique at the expense of all else. The music world
was, in effect, scapegoating Asians for its own defects.
Earlier this month, Lang Lang and Li appeared at Carnegie Hall
forty-eight hours apart. Lang Lang played the Bartok Second
Piano Concerto, with the Vienna Philharmonic, under Daniel
Barenboim. Li played the Liszt First Piano Concerto, with the
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under Riccardo Chailly. The two
pianists have a few things in common: both were born in China
in 1982; both can execute rapid figuration and double octaves
with almost irritating ease; both record for the Deutsche
Grammophon label; and both are notable for the variety of their
hair styles, ranging from the wavy to the spiky and back again.
But they're hardly interchangeable.
Listening to Lang Lang, I think of the absurdist pundit Stephen
Colbert, who promises not to read the news to his viewers but
to feel the news at them. Lang Lang feels the music at you, in
ways both good and bad. He advertises his love of performing
simply by the way he charges onstage, and he creates a giddy
atmosphere as he negotiates hairpin turns at high speed. Stereotypes
to the contrary, you wish at times that he were a little more
impersonal. He tends to impose his ebullience on the music,
whether or not the music demands it. At his Carnegie Hall solo
debut, in 2003, he memorably mangled a sequence of pieces by
Schumann, Haydn, and Schubert, effectively rewriting them in a
humid Romantic-Impressionist style. He is, however, steadily
maturing as an artist, and already makes a less willful impression.
Pianists often mention the Bartok Second Concerto as the most
taxing piece in the concerto repertory. (The Brahms Second and
the Rachmaninoff Third are cited alongside it.) The difficulty
lies not just in the writing itself but in the fact that the
cascades of notes are intended to conjure a "light and popular"
atmosphere, as Bartok himself said. This work, written in the
wake of nineteen-twenties neoclassicism, sparkles with Baroque-style
counterpoint and Classical melodic play. Lang Lang, who deserves
credit for taking on such non-standard fare, flew through the
music with ease, but his touch was too hard. He tended to bang
out chords at the end of a phrase, relying on extraneous accents
to give shape to a line rather than finding its inner contour.
Bartok's requests for leggiero, dolce, and grazioso-light, sweet,
graceful playing-often went unheeded; p became mf, mf became ff.
Only in the final movement were he and the composer fully in
synch. Grins broke out in the audience during the climactic
passage where the pianist pounds the lower end of the instrument
in tandem with the timpani and bass drum.
Yundi Li is a cooler presence. His playing is refined, almost
severe. He has an intelligent way of shaping phrases, controlling
dynamics, varying articulations. When Liszt uses the word
dolcissimo in the score of the First Concerto-as sweetly as
possible-Li responds in kind; he's a more naturally poetic soul
than Lang Lang. Too often at this Carnegie appearance, though,
he seemed in his own world, reluctant to enter into a real
give-and-take with the orchestra. In the concerto's finale,
when orchestra and soloist trade dotted rhythms back and forth,
Li kept barrelling ahead of the rest of the ensemble; you wanted
him to enjoy these showy phrases a little more, pick up a trick
or two from the swaggering brass. Still, it was a captivating
performance, the kind that you remember as much for its quiet
stretches as for its "wow factor," to borrow a term from "American
Idol." Let's hope that Li branches out from his favorite Chopin
and Liszt. He could deliver a superlative performance of the
The venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra, which came across as
disappointingly shabby at its previous New York appearance,
sounds startlingly revitalized in the hands of Chailly, who
took over as music director in 2005. Strauss's tone poem "Ein
Heldenleben" made a sublime racket on the second half of the
program; Chailly is a master of color and pacing, a spellbinding
storyteller. In the sharpness of their musical characterizations,
the Leipzigers outclassed the Viennese, who did not have their
best outing in the all-Bartok program I heard. A decade after
the Philharmonic announced that it would begin admitting women
to its ranks, it still has only one fully accredited female
member (Charlotte Balzereit, a harpist). It is also blindingly
white. Defenders maintain that the Philharmonic cannot abandon
its storied traditions in the name of Americanized notions of
political correctness, but the chief argument for diversity is,
in fact, aesthetic. The Vienna sound is showing symptoms of
atrophy; witness the excessively polished, inert rendition of
Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta that ended
the program. The orchestra may have to draw on a wider array
of talent if it is to hold its place at the pinnacle.
While Lang Lang and Li lay claim to the Romantic tradition, other
gifted young pianists-among them Jonathan Biss, Inon Barnatan,
Ingrid Fliter, and Paul Lewis-are taking up the high-minded,
anti-virtuoso tradition exemplified by Uchida and Alfred Brendel.
The first three recently appeared in New York, trailing the
release of outstanding new CDs: Biss has an all-Schumann disk
on the E.M.I. label; Barnatan has recorded, for Bridge, Schubert's
august B-Flat-Major Sonata; and Fliter pairs Beethoven and Chopin
on VAI Audio. Lewis, who has made an impressive start on a
Beethoven cycle for the Harmonia Mundi label, comes to Mostly
Mozart this summer.
Biss's recital took place at the Met Museum's superbly curated
Piano Forte series. On the program were Beethoven's "Pathetique,"
Webern's Piano Variations, Mozart's Sonata in F (K. 533), and
Schumann's "Kreisleriana." Biss offered no radical reinterpretations,
but at almost any given moment he seemed to be making the right
artistic choice. The slow sections of "Kreisleriana" and the
middle movements of the Mozart and the Beethoven magically
approximated the sound of one man thinking aloud. Only in the
Webern Variations did the pianist fall short; that snowstorm of
notes passed by a little too quickly, without settling into a
There's something almost surreal in the sight and sound of a
twenty-six-year-old playing with such unerring sophistication.
Listening blind, you might take Biss to be an elderly gentleman
of Budapest or Prague, one who has a faint childhood memory of
what life was like before Hitler and TV. Sometimes I found
myself wishing, perversely, that he would do something peculiar
or crude, just for the sake of variety. Lang Lang is the kind
of performer you really want to hear when he has grown up a bit
and settled down. Biss, on the other hand, may someday wish to
take a few more risks, to push against the flow of the music
that he understands so well. Then again, why would he want
to play differently when he is so close to perfection??
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