Monday, November 18, 2013

Lang Lang at the Royal Albert Hall, 17th November 2013

You can fit what I know about classical music on the back of a napkin.  Don't get me wrong I enjoy it, but I know next to nothing about the intricacies of what I'm listening to. At its worst its wilfully obscurist; when asked to pin down what's so good about a particular performance, its more unpleasant fans retreat into latin and snooty platitudes. Even though they've paid exorbitant ticket prices (presumably priced to keep the scum out) it's rare to see someone having a good time at one of these recitals; I'm sure some people somewhere in the room must be actually enjoying themselves, but in general half the crowd (usually a uniform sea of elderly white people) are asleep, the other half staring bovinely off into the middle distance, eyes glassy, jaw hanging softly openly, daydreaming about the knob's restaurant they're going to eat at after the gig.

Even with all this in mind, I leapt at the chance to see Lang Lang.  It's not every day you get to see someone commonly regarded as "the best pianist in the world".  At two years old Lang watched an episode of Tom & Jerry featuring Liszt's Rhapsody No.2, a momentous encounter which launched his obsession with the piano.  He won prizes all over China, then all over the world.  He's climbed the highest heights of his profession, invited to play the White House, the Diamond Jubilee and at Nobel Peace Prize Awards. Trumping even these was his performance to a global audience of four billion people at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.  And now he's settling down to play in front of me in the sumptuous surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall.

Before Lang began I was pretty sure that my musical palette was too unrefined to be able to tell the difference between a really great pianist and "the best in the world".  I figured that at the very least he'd hit the right keys at the right time in the right order without any obvious mistakes, but beyond doing that who knows?  If you just start calling someone the best around, past a certain skill level who's going to contradict them?

Happily, Lang did hit all the right keys at the right time in the right order, but to my surprise there actually was some indefinable quality that set him apart from 99.9% of musicians. Admittedly, I didn't twig this immediately.  The first portion of the show was a series of Mozart recitals: Piano Sonata No. 5 in G major, KV 283, Piano Sonata No. 4 in E flat major, KV 282, Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, KV 310.  This is pleasant enough, but playing Mozart at this sort of gig is like hearing This Charming Man at an indie disco. Sure everyone loves it, but we've sung these words and done these dance moves a thousand times before - let's mix things up a bit.

One of the constant dangers at a classical music gig is dozing off.  I was in a box in the second tier, so though the music was clear as a bell Lang and his piano were matchbox sized.  With the lovely music washing over me, the pleasant warmness of the heated boxes and last night's hangover from the queer disco gently ebbing away I began to feel the cosy angora glove of snooziness resting heavily on my shoulder. 

The second half was much more rousing, not least because the Royal Albert Hall finally managed to get their video screens working.  This section of the gig was based around Chopin: Ballade No. 1 Op 23 in G minor, Ballade No. 2 Op 38 in F Major, Ballade No. 3 Op 47 in A flat and Ballade No. 4 Op 52 in F minor.  Even with my limited knowledge of high-end music I recognised that this was balls hard to play.  At about the same time I noticed something that should've been obvious; Lang was playing all of this from memory.  Genius comes with a subtle aura that causes a vagal shiver up your spine, the combination of his hands in close-up, this realisation and the flood of perfect harmony emanating from the centre of the hall made my skin gently tingle with pleasure. Lang Lang plays this music with the same furious precision and skill with which Ayrton Senna drove cars, Michael Jordan sunk baskets and Bruce Lee kicked dudes in the face.

Now that the camera is zoomed in close him we can appreciate his facial expressions. As he shifts between musical gears his eyebrows bob up and down his face like excited little caterpillars, his nose twitches madly, a faint expression of pleasure dancing around the corners of his mouth as if he's hearing this music tumble from his fingers for the first time - a man amazed at what he's accomplishing.

Even though every bonk of the ivories is surefooted and confident there's an attractive humbleness to Lang.  After Chopin he mops the sweat from this brow, picks up a microphone and begins to chat to us.  After an hour of hushed silence this is a cue to let our hair down a bit, and he begins a varied, light-hearted musical journey, playing us a series of personal favourites from around the world.  He plays a Mexican Intermezzi, a dance from Cuba, the Minute Waltz, Kinderszenen, bits of Schumann and a Chopin nocturne. All these pieces have virtuosity scattered liberally throughout, particles of humour and dollops of keenly felt emotion.  My favourite was a Chinese composition called The Seaweed Dance.  It was short and almost minimalist in construction, but delicate and beautiful from start to finish.

In between these performances Lang is strolling around the stage with a big grin on his face, shaking hands with everyone around him.  The stuffiness of the classical crowd evaporates into the old Victorian rafters.  Like animals they're drumming their feet against the floor and yelling for Lang's return, shouting for encores with the exact  infectious passion you'd see at a One Direction gig.  After eight encores he splits, though not before tossing a bouquet of flowers into the audience.  They clock a woman full in the face but she emerges beaming from the greenery and kisses her partner full on the mouth.  D'awww. 

The act feels like some crazy kind of signature, and with that, Lang Lang vanishes into the bowels of the building, his face sweaty, his hands sore, his work here done.  In an age of hologram performers, flamethrower guitars and huge, epic concert scenery I was a bit sceptical that one guy and a piano could hold my attention.  But boy, what a piano and what a guy.  Best piano player in the world?  Probably.  Best I'm ever likely to see anyway.

Thanks to Antoinette and Chris Wilcox for the ticket.

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