In Praise of Showmanship But Not Without a Showman

The Guardians of the Correct Way to Play Schubert were out in force the other night at Lang Lang’s recital in Carnegie Hall. Sitting in their midst, halfway back on the auditorium’s main floor, I could almost hear their inward grumblings of disapproval as the extravagantly hyped, 21-year-old Chinese Wunderkind hurtled through the Wanderer Fantasy as though it were “Chopsticks.” Here is a work that we piano lovers can whistle in our sleep (even if we don’t dare approach it at home on our Steinway), and whatever our favorite Wanderer might be-the one, say, filtered through Sviatoslav Richter’s leaping imagination, or the one fueled by Maurizio Pollini’s magisterial poise-we think we know “rightness” when we hear it.

A four-movement extrapolation of his song of the same title, the Wanderer is perhaps Schubert’s most thematically unified major piano work-its rush of melody and moods seems expelled in a single breath. None of that had apparently occurred to Lang Lang. Each virtuosic passage was brilliantly played, sometimes at blinding speed; each quieter moment had a reflective grace. The balance between the two hands was uncanny, at times conjuring up the transparent ether of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog . But each element seemed of the moment, a sequence of gems held up for inspection, each in its turn. Beyond the exigency of the playing, there was no particular feeling of urgency, no tug of that familiar Schubertian undertow.

Many of these perceptions were echoed in tones of indignation at the Café Carnegie during the intermission. And some of them cropped up in the reviews churned out by my fellow Guardians, notably in a notice by Anthony Tommasini, in The New York Times , that acknowledged the pianist’s “color, flair and energy” while scolding him for being “incoherent, self-indulgent and slam-bang crass.” I shared Mr. Tommasini’s dismay at such Lang Lang–ian antics as the casting of eyes heavenward and the sculpting of air with an italicizing hand. During the most rhythmically wayward playing of Haydn that I have ever heard (the Sonata in C Major), these histrionics brought to mind George Bernard Shaw’s remark about the eccentric showboat Vladimir de Pachmann, who “gave his well-known pantomimic performance, with accompaniments by Chopin.” After Lang Lang had delivered his blistering account of Liszt’s Reminiscences de Don Juan -a grand paraphrase of Mozart’s Don Giovanni -I wanted to buy him a ticket to the opera to let him in on the secret that the Don and Zerlina’s duet, “La ci darem la mano,” is about seduction, not the apocalypse.

And yet, in the end, I stood up and cheered along with almost everybody else. When it suited him-in Eight Memories in Watercolor by the pianist’s compatriot, Tan Dun, or in Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major-this amazing product of the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing (which he entered at the age of 9) revealed that he could be a tone poet with the ear of a Walter Gieseking. More important, I decided that here was something new: If Lang Lang’s Wanderer wasn’t the Schubert that I had been cultivated to think of as Schubert , it was nonetheless coming from an authentically blazing talent who clearly looks at the great piano literature from his own culture, his own perspective. Unlike the droves of super-trained but faceless young graduates-many of them of Asian parentage-who pour out of our conservatories, Lang Lang isn’t afraid to show us exactly who he is. Like Liszt, Paderewski and Horowitz, to name a few of his most adored predecessors, he comes to us not just as a virtuoso, but as a showman. If he was overdoing it the other night in front of the German crew who were filming the concert, I say God bless him. Another Liberace I can do without-but right now, classical music can use all the sensational showmanship it can get.

“Sensational” is a word that has also been applied to Sir Simon Rattle, the British conductor who raised the provincial City of Birmingham Orchestra to international prominence, and who now leads the Berlin Philharmonic. The orchestra’s recent series at Carnegie was Mr. Rattle’s New York debut with his new band, and I attended one of the concerts, expecting to be blown away by the collaboration of a maestro famous for his infectious engagement with musicians and the Rolls-Royce of symphony orchestras. The program offered an intriguing range of styles-the American premiere of Aus Einem Tagebuch (“From a Diary”), by the contemporary German composer Heiner Goebbels, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major ( The Great ). The execution throughout was astonishing and flawless, especially in the hypnotically hot-wired Goebbels piece, which sounded like a mordant musing on every spooky film-noir score from Fritz Lang to Fassbinder. Some of it should have ended up on the cutting-room floor, but it’s a piece that demands to be heard more than once to tease out its diaristic threads.

The Berlin, which is now a conspicuously youthful-looking ensemble, with a large component of female players, has lost none of its legendary power. Has any orchestra’s strings ever sounded so volcanic, as if arising from the bowels of the earth? But I found something strangely remote about the performances; I was impressed but not moved. The craggy, surging Sibelius came across as monolithic and brilliantly compacted as one of John Chamberlain’s wrecked-car sculptures. Missing was air and light-the tang of salt in the Nordic spray. The Schubert marched inexorably along without charm or delight; beautiful sounds were abundant but lacking in an accompanying spirit of beauty. It may be too soon to judge a partnership that’s only in its second year, but on the basis of this performance, I would guess that Simon Rattle and his super-players have yet to connect on the level of sheer enjoyment, which is where great music-making really lives. What I heard was an orchestra playing at, not for, the audience-showmanship without a showman.