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CLASSICAL  March 2007

CLASSICAL March 2007

Subject:

Music & Soul

From:

Janos Gereben <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 27 Mar 2007 13:03:58 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (158 lines)

   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
   Bartok Second.

   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
   dream landscape.

   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??

Janos Gereben/SF
www.sfcv.org
[log in to unmask]

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