Random rewards are an oft-studied psychological phenomenon.
Humans and animals do not find themselves attracted to the predictable, but rather, the unpredictable, where sometimes they are awarded nothing, and sometimes they win big. Think about gamblers, for example, addicted to the on/off rush of win-big-or-go-home playing.
Lang Lang has always been that pianist for me – once in a while, he does something truly great and extraordinary musically. When he does, my brain’s reward sensors go haywire, basking in the unusually extraordinary talent of a living classical pianist.
But most of the time, his interpretation feels, to me, like an effort at a momentary crowd-please rather than an attempt for immortal artistry.
And that’s what brings us to Lang Lang’s newest recording of The Goldberg Variations, released in September of 2020.
Certainly, there are brief moments in the recording that are pure joy, exuding unbelievable pianistic technique and a true sense of wonder.
But those moments are few and far between. The majority of this particular studio performance falls country miles short of the many great interpretations preceding it. Few recordings elicit such a sense of “random reward” – you never know what you will get from track to track.
In the hands of Lang Lang, Bach has never sounded so Romantic. The Aria alone has so many pauses, fermatas, and, believe it or not, bird noises in the background about 3:40 into the recording that were never in the score of Bach’s original manuscript.
The opening Aria, with all its tempo liberty, is a failed attempt at artistic evolution; Lang Lang certainly draws upon Gould’s 1981 recording as the launchpad for his interpretation, with its slow, methodical approach. Unlike Gould, Lang Lang fails to carry Gould’s legacy of obsessive precision.
Lang Lang’s particular Aria recording can be taken as a daring interpretation, or it can be construed as sacrilegious, depending on how purist the listener is.
Tempo liberties are abundant throughout the recording. For instance, the third variation’s left hand bass sounds stilted and not fully thought through. Chalk it up to too much rubato.
For an uneducated listener, it may sound good and floating. But for someone with classical training, the approach is unconventional and unusual for Baroque era music.
I certainly don’t mind a Romantic interpretation to a Baroque era composer. Some moments in the recording did give me pause, for better or worse.
Where Lang Lang truly shines are in the most virtuosic fast movements. Here, his unbelievable technical virtuosity helps Bach feel effortless, pure, and joyous. Lang’s crowning achievement is not his – dare I reveal – 10-minute long variation 26, but rather, those small moments that are fast, clear, and not requiring any Romantic infusions.
I’m talking about movements like the Variation 5; this recording’s interpretation here is as good as Gould, Dinnerstein, or Perahia. The Fughetta in Variation 10 is also equally joyous, if not approached a little aggressively through loud, often-times harsh key pounding.
Lang Lang’s musicianship really comes to life in Variation 12. Fast three-voice counterpoint has never sounded so clear; every line comes to life and is equally singable, joyous, and a true pleasure to listen to. If every movement were as perfect, then this recording would be the successor to Gould.
The problem with this recording, however, lies in the slower movements. Like I said earlier, it’s not that adding a Romantic side to Bach that is necessarily bad, it’s that Lang Lang’s interpretation fails to come across as satisfyingly shaped.
Sure, the Aria is pretty, but it’s shapeless, and this movement is hardly meant to be shapeless. So are the movements that harken the most to the Aria, such as Variation 13.
One of the great challenges for any pianist in The Goldberg Variations is, well, adding variation to the work’s consistent G Major tonality. Even in 2012, the great American pianist Jeremy Denk criticized the Goldberg Variations’ consistent G Major tonality.
I think that’s why Glenn Gould recordings are so hard to top; our brain knows we are in the same key for so many movements, but Gould’s precision and approach makes every movement feel distinct.
On the other hand, for Lang Lang, each movement feels like the one before it, except the fast and brilliant ones.
And, it’s hard to blame Lang Lang for this. Slow movements are treacherous for interpretations. Phrasing, tempo, dynamics – mastery may not be essential for impressive, thunderous pianism, but it is for everlasting value.
Honestly, slow movements have never been Lang Lang’s strong suit. Whether he is playing Flight of the Bumblebee on an iPad or wowing us with any given concerto’s opening Allegro movement, Lang Lang is unsurpassed when it comes to effortless technique and unadulterated virtuosity when playing specifically fast music.
And that’s not to say Lang Lang does a completely bad job in this recording. The fastest and most virtuosic movements do have something compelling to say.
However, the slow movements are what makes the Goldberg Variations special. Variation 21 and Variation 25, the slow minor key movements, are the crowning compositional achievements of the work, as well as the Aria and Aria Da Capo.
These particular movements sound pretty but confused in this recording, with unnecessary emphases on the wrong notes and tempo freedoms not even afforded to a typical Chopin or Liszt interpretation.
But, if we are here to simply objectively measure Lang Lang’s interpretation, the point is not to say it “academically” falls flat, which it does.
Rather, given the unusually incredible talent Lang Lang possesses, the performance presented in this recording simply doesn’t live up to its artistic – and pianist’s – true potential.