Lang Lang shows top artistry as well as fireworks at Lyric Opera of Chicago recital
The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s regular season may have ended in March, but the house was filled to capacity Saturday night — not for opera by Verdi or Puccini but for Lang Lang in his debut appearance at the Civic Opera House.
The Chinese superstar pianist expressed an interest in performing at Lyric Opera and the house was happy to accommodate him. The venture reflects the company’s new emphasis on presenting nontraditional (for them) events — Broadway musicals in the off-season and Saturday’s piano recital —to attract new audiences to the Civic Opera House.
Based on that aspect, the evening was clearly a huge success, attracting a sold-out house of over 3,500 people and drawing a vast swathe of Asian and Asian-American music fans of all ages who are likely not regular Lyric Opera patrons.
A festive atmosphere prevailed Saturday, which never tipped over into a circus, due largely to the polite concentration of most of those assembled — some rude unmuffled coughers apart — and the meat-and-potatoes fare Lang Lang served up of Bach, Schubert and Chopin.
Natty in his wet-look suit, Lang Lang led off the evening with Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B flat, BWV 825. Lang Lang’s Bach proved masterful, a model of how to bring expressive detailing to these Baroque suites without sacrificing period style. The Prelude was light and airy, the Allemande went with a sprite-like playfulness, and in the Courante — as throughout — the pianist brought an ideal blend of clarity and grace to Bach’s contrapuntal writing.
The Sarabande was the highlight of the performance and one of the finest moments of the evening. Poised, affecting and iridescently hued, Lang Lang brought out the music’s wistful nostalgia, rendering the slow movement with a flexible rubato that made it seem like he was making up the notes as he went along.
Schubert’s epic Sonata in B flat major, D.960, was the largest work of the evening. To this vast canvas Lang Lang brought his characteristic stainless-steel arsenal as well as a remarkable concentration and wide expressive palette. There was a searching, almost otherworldly quality to the main theme of the opening Moderato, with the pianist starkly emphasizing the bass tremolos and violent oscillations that continually undermine its progress. All repeats were observed in this movement, yet Lang Lang paced it with great skill, leading the listeners through the dramatic ebb and flow.
His spacious tempo for the opening movement sacrificed a certain contrast with the ensuing Andante but here too Lang Lang’s playing was first class, combining assertive strength and lyric delicacy. The Scherzo brought us out of the darkness with a spring-like agility.
The finale can often seem a bit lightweight after the bleak desolation of the opening movements, but Lang Lang brought a hollow feel to the gamboling main theme and the aggressive drama of the latter section had an edge of desperation that felt just right. We’ve heard some first-class Schubert playing in Chicago in recent months from Mitsuko Uchida and Paul Lewis but Lang Lang’s searching performance seemed the deepest and most satisfying of all.
Chopin’s 12 Etudes, Op. 25, made up the second half. More than most, Lang Lang’s terraced expressive range and architectural grasp made a kind of unified large-scale tone poem out of these dozen virtuosic studies. The pianist brought both intimate poetry and edge-of-the-seat bravura to Chopin’s miniatures, and there were countless felicities like the flowing undulations of No. 1 in A flat major and the liquid cascade of the right hand in No. 2 in F minor. The jaunty off-kilter bustle of No. 3 in F major and the jazzy syncopation of No. 4 in A minor had a decidedly Chinese feel in Lang Lang’s hands.
The pianist brought rapt tenderness and nobility to No. 7 in C-sharp minor, and the most bravura Etudes — the flying octaves of No. 10 in B minor, the whirling tempest of No. 11 in A minor — were thrown off with a fire, power and faultless technical command that were quite sensational.
From an artistic and pubic relations standpoint, the evening was a great success but there were logistical issues having to do with the large screen over the stage projecting a real-time image of Lang Lang’s hands on the keyboard. Such video enhancement is probably inevitable in a venue the size of the Civic Opera House. Yet while the overhead vantage point made one appreciate Lang Lang’s technical prowess even more, the projection would likely have been more successful had it been better executed.
Instead of having the camera aligned so that the keyboard was parallel with the horizontal side of the rectangular screen, the director opted for a slightly angled vertical perspective. That may have provided a “cool” raked image but it also meant that Lang Lang’s hands were often out of view during key moments, as with the bass tremolos in the Schubert sonata. Also, all the fussy zooming in and out eventually became a distraction. Even while concentrating intently on the live performer, it’s hard to prevent being drawn to the large screen and consequently beset by extraneous thoughts (“Why is he zooming out now?”).
The immediate, thunderous standing ovation brought Lang Lang back out for a few brief words (“Good evening. It’s a great pleasure for me to play my first recital at the Lyric Opera of Chicago”) and two encores. There was more Chopin with the Etude in E major, Op. 10, no. 3, limpid and intimate, shorn of sticky sentiment with a bust-out bravura in the middle section. And the pianist closed with a flame-throwing rendition of Liszt’s La campanella thrown off with a speed, power and hairpin dynamic curveballs that few, if any, can equal.
In a hall built for voices, audience members compared notes about the piano sound at intermission. From the left center aisle near the front Lang Lang’s Steinway emerged clear and tangible but lacking in brilliance at the top end and with the bass turning somewhat diffuse. While clearly not a concert-hall acoustic, the sound was acceptable and largely allowed Lang Lang’s vast range of color and dynamics to project with sufficient impact.