Indefensible, indispensable Lang Lang, plus Britten at the movies

When Lang Lang plays the piano, you never know what you’ll hear. It could be something ridiculously bad, it could be something historically good. Sometimes, you hear both of those extremes on the same night.

Lang Lang.

Lang Lang.

Such was the case when the Chinese sensation played a recital in Carnegie Hall toward the end of last month. He opened with Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B flat. Immediately, he was all rubato, or, put differently, all license. It continued this way throughout the suite. Lang did whatever he wanted, with tempo, rhythm and phrasing. Whether this was what Bach wanted was doubtful. You would have hesitated to play a Chopin nocturne as freely as Lang played the sarabande here.

Moreover, he committed some harsh, unreasonable accents, distorting the line. And when he emphasized inner voices—which is certainly no sin—he overemphasized them.

Even for those of us who are liberal about Bach interpretation, Lang’s playing of the partita was hard to defend. It failed the test of musicality. In my experience, Lang never, ever plays badly. It’s just that he sometimes thinks badly. His fingers will do whatever his brain commands.

After the Bach, he turned to an even bigger piece in B flat, Schubert’s sonata in that key. Beauty of sound is more helpful in Schubert than it is in most composers. And Lang has ample beauty of sound. The Scherzo, particularly its beginning, was amazingly limpid. Lang gave no sense that a piano has hammers. He simply glided. Like the Bach partita, the Schubert sonata was unorthodox. Unlike the partita, in my opinion, the sonata was interesting, defensible and musical.

After intermission, Lang played the 12 études of Chopin’s Op. 25. The first of these is the “Aeolian Harp.” Lang was born to play it, because he can float like an angel. Other études require floating too. Still others require deviltry or humor. Lang was persuasive in almost all of them. Each of them, he seemed to be improvising.

This pianist can be a pain to look at, with his gyrations and poses, but I must say I got a kick out of him in the Chopin. He wielded the piano like a weapon. He was like some musketeer of the keyboard, swashbuckling.

Has there ever been silkier, more beautiful piano playing than what Lang showed in the F-minor étude? But in the last one—the étude in C minor, turning into C major—he reminded me of a point I have long made about him: For all his gifts, Lang seems unable to make a proper fortissimo. So strange. He fails to produce a big or solid enough sound. He sort of slaps, vigorously.

He closed the evening with his second encore, La campanella, that piece by the devil via Paganini and Liszt. If you hang around long enough, you will hear just about everyone play it. I have—and have never heard it played more excitingly or brilliantly than by Lang.

If there is a bigger stage than Carnegie Hall, it’s the movies. And Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, just released, opens with The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, by Benjamin Britten. Children are listening to it. The movie is filled with children, even dominated by them. The Young Person’s Guide is the piece of music most often fed to children, along with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. Moonrise Kingdom includes some of the Carnival too. I did not hear any of Peter.

The movie is absolutely stuffed with music, including Schubert’s great tribute to music itself, “An die Musik.” Obviously, someone on this film—Anderson?—cares a lot about music. Someone on the film is smart about music too: The pieces selected fit the action and images on the screen like a glove.

Though many composers are represented, Britten is the main one: We hear several of his pieces, not just The Young Person’s Guide. Britten is a composer who stays close to the sea. The movie is set on an island off New England. A terrible, consequential storm comes to the island. The movie uses Noye’s Fludde (Noah’s Flood), Britten’s little opera based on a 16th-century “mystery play.”

At the end of the movie, we again hear bits of The Young Person’s Guide. The narrator in this piece explains how the sections of the orchestra work together. The kids in the movie have worked together too. People say that music education in schools is dead. If that is so, we’ll have to rely on the movies—along with cell phone rings.