What is it about the Goldberg Variations which gives them such an enduring appeal? Two new recordings have been released in as many months, by two leading pianists of the 21st-century, yet each quite different in their approach. Maybe it is because Bach gives few performance directions, a lack of specificity which allows performers the freedom to make personal choices about the interpretative possibilities of this music. This is certainly true of these two new recordings.

Lang Lang’s Goldbergs (DG), released in September as a double album of studio and live recordings, is bright in sound and lavish in presentation. Some of the tempi are questionable, with elastic rubato stretched just a little too far, presumably intended to convey meaning or deep emotion, and the faster variations are rather showily bombastic. Listening at home, it feels like an extrovert and spirited concert performance, occasionally just too declamatory (though one can of course turn the volume down a notch or two!), but I have to admit that overall I enjoyed Lang Lang’s Goldbergs. There’s a freshness in his approach and he manages a singing tone with a bright, colourful piano sound, and I take issue with those who have suggested that he should not touch this music, which enjoys such an elevated status in the canon of keyboard music. In my view, the music is there to be played, by anyone who chooses to play it, and Lang Lang makes a good case for being considered a serious musician, rather than a flamboyant showman (in fact, he is both) with his recordings of the Goldbergs.

At the other end of the spectrum, musically and presentationally, is the young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, whose concert performances and recordings are imbued with a special sensitivity and emotional intelligence. Modest in mannerisms and presence, Kolesnikov could not be further from Lang Lang.  Rightly described as a “poet” of the piano, he can nuance his touch and dynamics in such a way that the slightest shift in sonority speaks volumes in terms of mood and narrative.

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With these qualities to his playing, it is no surprise that Kolesnikov’s version of the Goldbergs is rich in intimacy, reminding us that this music was, it is said, composed as a distraction for the insomniac Baron (later Count) Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador at the Dresden electoral court. The famous opening Aria barely announces itself, gently insinuating its simple, elegant melody into the ear and the consciousness. In Kolesnikov’s hands it’s a miniature study in elegance and other-worldly serenity. A calmness flows through the music, setting the tone for the entire work. Even in the up tempo or more lively variations, where there is palpable drama and robustness, Kolesnikov still retains an underlying sense of measured thoughtfulness.

But for me it is his touch which really captivates and delights: filigree ornaments and trills, passage work in which his quicksilver fingers appear to float across the keys, yet without losing definition. His textures flicker in and out of focus – now crispy defined, now delicately veiled and muted, yet throughout there is clarity of articulation, structure and musical vision.

And there is one particular moment which really stops you in your tracks – and may have Bach purists clutching at their pearls. Did he really do that? Variation 30 segues from the one before it in a bloom of sound, the sustaining pedal creating an unexpected and intriguing extra sonic layer before fading away to allow the Aria to return like a memory of times past.

This recording is the result of Kolesnikov’s collaboration with dancer and choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and the spirit of the dance, which infuses so much of Bach’s music, is never far away in the delightful playfulness of Kolesnikov’s approach to Bach’s rhythms and counterpoint. This is an exquisitely tasteful and original account, recorded on a modern Yamaha grand piano on which Kolesnikov manages to recreate the softly-spoken sonorities of a clavichord or fortepiano (in preparing for the recording Kolesnikov worked on a number of different instruments “switching between them, in order to loosen up a little, to shake up my perception of sound of piano“.

What these two recordings prove – and the many, many others which exist – is that the Goldberg Variations is music without consensus: there are clichés about how Bach’s music should be played – from the period instrument zealots to the iconoclasts – and traditional views about how it should be played on the modern piano, but in fact there is no “right way”, nor who should play it, and the Goldberg Variations remain extraordinarily fertile terrain for those who choose to walk there.


Photo credit: Eva Vermandel

Lang Lang (photo © Philip Glaser)

Here’s an article from Bachtrack’s ‘Piano Month’ on pianists and their gestures. Whether you love or hate Lang Lang’s extreme facial expressions and flamboyant OTT gestures, or feel the perfomer’s gestures should only serve the music, this is an interesting and thoughtful read.

Every age has its own tastes, its own aesthetic lines drawn in the sand. Since the 19th century, with its seminal guardians of musical decorum (Clara Schumann chief among them), pianists and their critics have debated the role of stage persona. Most outspoken are those who believe that a quiet, undemonstrative approach to the instrument – à la Arthur Rubinstein – best reflects a serious commitment to earnest musicianship. The corollary is presumed true as well: that excessive body movement or facial expressions can cheapen an interpretation or betray a lack of real understanding. Pianist Lang Lang, often insensitively derided as “Bang Bang”, is held in this case to be Public Enemy Number One. Our current notion of good taste is less extreme, and concedes that a bit of visual display can be acceptable and even beneficial, so long as it is a natural byproduct of a performer’s interpretation. Read more

 

An episode from Alan Yentob’s ‘Imagine’ series for the BBC, in which Yentob traces the meteoric rise of Chinese poster-boy pianist Lang Lang from child prodigy to international superstar.

Despite my dislike of Lang Lang (his playing and his manner in general), this is an interesting programme, if only for the dreadful pushiness of Lang Lang’s father – a lesson, perhaps, for all over-ambitious parents of talented children.

In an interesting piece of parallel programming, the film ‘Shine’, biopic about Australian pianist David Helfgott, whose downward spiral into mental illness has been attributed to his father’s attitude, was broadcast after the feature on Lang Lang. A moving and insightful film.

‘Do – or Die: Lang Lang’s Story’ on the BBC iPlayer

As English as Earl Grey tea, wasps at a picnic, warm beer, wet summers, Rupert Brooke, and Andy Murray not getting past the semis at Wimbledon, the Last Night of the Proms is a fine tradition and a much-loved national treasure.

Music snobs and cynics may criticise the Last Night (and indeed other programmes in the Proms season) for “dumbing down” classical music. Others may regard all the flag-waving and singing of Rule Britannia! as rampant jingoism verging on unpleasant nationalism – and if the Prommers were skinheads and card-carrying BNP members, maybe that would be true. But in fact, watching the Last Night on television on Saturday night, the overriding sense is of a wonderful shared experience and a real celebration of music and music making. And not all the flags were Union Jacks, not by any means…..

Photo credit: BBC

The Proms has grown, from its relatively humble origins at the Queen’s Hall in London at the end of the nineteenth century, to an internationally renowned music festival. When the Proms were first conceived, the motivation was to bring classical music to a wider public and to encourage those who might not normally go to classical music concerts to attend. This is still the Proms’ USP, and something it is clearly doing right, given the record attendance figures this year. Latterly, the Proms has become more populist: this year we’ve had a Horrible Histories Prom, a Comedy Prom and a Spaghetti Western Prom, but alongside these more popular programmes we’ve also had many premiers of new works, fine orchestras and soloists from all around the world, and night after night of fantastic music.  I have been to four Proms, reviewing for Bachtrack, and have enjoyed every single one of them. After the stuffy, hidebound, reverential atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, with its (mostly) snooty, superannuated audience, the Royal Albert Hall is a breath of fresh air. At each Prom I attended, there was a wonderful sense of people coming together to enjoy and celebrate music.

It’s hard to get a ticket to the Last Night: like Wimbledon, tickets are allocated by ballot and you have to submit your request months in advance. Thus, the sense of occasion is even greater, if you are one of the lucky ones to be there. Even if you are not, the tv and radio coverage is so good these days that you can join in the festivities from your living room, as I did last night. Or attend a Prom in the Park, a relatively new innovation which aims to bring music to an even wider audience.

The programme started seriously enough with a new work by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, followed by some lively, spiky Bartok, before the first Main Event of the evening, Susan Bullock singing Brunhilde’s self-immolation scene from Wagner’s Ring cycle. I can live without Wagner, though certain friends insist that I can’t, and while I admired Susan Bullock’s performance – and her striking scarlet dress – I found the extreme vibrato in her voice obscured the music. She’s clearly a popular performer, and interviewed afterwards by Katie Derham, she admitted that the atmosphere in the hall was remarkable.

Next up was Chinese posterboy rockstar pianist Lang Lang. He’d dashed from the Prom in the Park across the road in Hyde Park, where he’d played the most ridiculously flashy account of Liszt’s ‘La Campanella’ I have ever heard, to perform more Liszt, the First Piano Concerto, in the main hall. I admit I have very little patience with performers like Lang Lang. Sure, he’s a fine technician, but there’s no real substance nor depth to his playing – and this was more than evident in the Liszt Concerto, which he reduced to another display of unnecessary piano pyrotechnics. Added to that, his gurning and grinning, his affected gestures, and his Liberace-like smiles at the camera…. He’s a big crowd-pleaser and received rousing and sustained applause. He returned after the interval to wreck Chopin’s ‘Grande Polonaise Brillante’, more schmaltz and sugar plums, before offering the most sycophantic, sentimental Liszt (the ‘Consolation’ No. 3) as an encore.

Next, Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’, a welcome relief after Lang Lang’s extreme attention-seeking, with Jenny Agutter reading a rather toe-curling new version of the text written by poet Wendy Cope. The rest of the programme is, traditionally, devoted to the massed singalong, beginning this year with ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ (from The Sound of Music) and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, Susan Bullock returning to the stage in a vivid electric blue gown, to lead the singing. Then it was Elgar, twice, the audience urged by conductor Edward Gardner (the youngest conductor to conduct at the Last Night) to sing up and drown the piccolo. And finally, Rule Britannia!, sung by Susan Bullock, wearing a hilarious parody of Britannia’s costume, complete with flashing daffodils on her breastplate, and Jerusalem. All good wholesome fun, and entirely uplifting.

So, the Proms is over for another year, yet predictions are already being made about next year’s programme. I’ve heard rumours that Barenboim will conduct all nine of Beethoven’s Symphonies, and, being the Olympic year, the 2012 season is likely to be really special. I’m looking forward to it already!

Meanwhile, the autumn season at the Wigmore Hall has just begun, and I have a full diary of concerts to look forward to, beginning tomorrow lunchtime with young French ‘piano babe’ Lise de la Salle. Other highlights include Robert Levin playing Mozart with the OAE, Garrick Ohlsson, Louis Lortie, Peter Donohoe and Mitsuko Uchida. You can find links to all my reviews for Bachtrack on this blog, as well as plenty of other piano-musings. And don’t forget to check out Bachtrack’s listings for concerts, opera and ballet around the world (click on the graphic on the left).

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester by Rupert Brooke (spot the quote which inspired this post!!)


Another opportunity to see Alan Yentob’s superbly insightful and myth-dispelling programme about the tortures and the triumphs of making it as a concert pianist. With contributions from Benjamin Grosvenor (aged 12), Stephen Hough, Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Joanna Macgregor, Lang Lang, and rare interviews by Arthur Rubenstein. Available via the BBC iPlayer here…….and a taster from YouTube