Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Two Pianists - Ashley Wass & Lang Lang with Guo-ren Lang (er-hu)
City of London Festival, St Olave's Church & Middle Temple Hall, 30 June 2003

The New Generations series gave a fine opportunity to visit or revisit a number of the city churches by Wren and others for short recitals, convenient for city workers on their way home, and mostly within walking distance to concerts later in the evenings. At the very beautiful St Olave's Church in the City, where Samuel Pepys and his wife are buried; Elisabeth [pictured] looking down over the piano, we enjoyed a recital by Ashley Wass, a thoughtful pianist who won the first World Piano Competition in London and chose solo piano music by Cesar Franck for his debut CD.

Wass framed his programme with pieces from the Swiss book of Liszt's musical travel diary; sensitive, warm playing, never bombastic nor perfunctory in the more dramatic and overtly virtuosic passages, showing this unfavourite composer of mine to best advantage, in contrast to a recent unhappy experience from a far more famous Liszt specialist. Similar approaches stood him in good stead for Prokofiev's 3rd sonata (a reworking of earlier material) and for Bartok's Out of Doors Suite, which lacked nothing in virtuosity and evocative expressivity, c.p. the oft-repeated cliché , heard once again in the introduction to Radio 3's broadcast of the recital, that Bartok "reinvented the piano as a percussion instrument" - this is belied by Bartok's own piano recordings, which are surprisingly romantic. St Olave is acoustically sympathetic but better in the outer aisles.

Thence, as Pepys might say, hotfoot to Middle Temple Hall for another piano recital half an hour later! Here the greatly lauded and hyped Lang Lang shared the platform with his father Guo-ren Lang, a modest, unassuming virtuoso on the traditional er-hu, an instrument in which the bow is locked in between its two strings. They gave four folk pieces, one a spectacular unaccompanied evocation of bird song, the others sensitively supported by his newly famous son, who showed his acute ear and command of piano timbres in his voicing of very conventional piano arrangements; placed as an interlude after the interval, this was for us the best part of the concert.

What to say about Lang Lang's Haydn, Brahms, Schumann & Balakirev? This is a minority report on an event that, for the capacity audience, was clearly a high point of the festival. Plainly Lang is in love with the piano, and with what he can do with it. Trying to be positive, the slow movement of Haydn's sonata was well phrased, though the outer ones were raced through as velocity display pieces. There were odd accentuations, with cherry-picking of inner parts to emphasise, in what seemed to be his determination to be individual and to set his own stamp upon the composers - throughout what became a distressing recital, their compositions were made to serve Lang instead of the obverse. He began Schumann's ABEGG variations well, but soon the same tendencies surfaced as in his idiosyncratic accounts of some of the Brahms Op 118 pieces. Islamey, still sometimes touted perversely as the hardest of all piano works, was given an over-the-top outing of great bravura, and not too many splashes unless you're a stickler for accuracy; but it was Lang's Balakirev, not the composer's.

Lang Lang's technical equipment is unquestionable, and formidable for a veteran of only about 21 - he started playing the piano at 3. At the keyboard he can do anything he decides to with apparent ease and an infectious zest, which wins over audiences without fail. But Lang's musical understanding lags behind his keyboard fluency. If he aspires to become a mature musician as well as a keyboard lion, he might do well to persuade David Winston to build him, for home study, another copy of the fine Brodwood fortepiano so eloquently described by Olga Tverskaya, whose playing of Mozart & Schubert is reverberating in my mind since last week. He would do well to work on his 19 & late 18 C repertoire on such a period piano - doing so might transform his interpretations before he returns to perform the same music, and foster what the Financial Times perceives as his 'enormous promise', as yet undisciplined.

See Lang Lang's website, with examples of his playing to hear, and Marc Bridle's interview in Seen&Heard. Lang Lang plays Tchaikovsky No 1 in the first Prom on 18 July. Samuel Pepys commissioned the striking bust of his wife at St Olave's; illustration from Claire Tomalin's biography.

P.S. Jan 2008: Whilst Ashley Wass has steadily matured and his CDs have made a valuable contribution to the recorded discography of 20 C English piano music, Lang Lang has shown no sign of looking beyond the money, q.v. Geoffrey Norris in The Telegraph Lang Lang: A bravura display of preening [Editor]


© Peter Grahame Woolf