Where is Lang Lang going?
It may seem premature to wonder about development or maturity in a musician as young as the 24-year-old pianist. But his ascent to the top of the music world has been exceptionally rapid. If proof were needed, it lay in the fact that Sunday's recital was his second in Symphony Hall, a place only the upper echelon of recitalists can fill. Now he finds himself too old to be a prodigy, much too young to be an elder statesman. That's why it was worth listening for signs of what kind of musician he's becoming.
A familiar knock against Lang is that, for all his formidable pianistic skills, he has nothing to say about the music he plays. In fact, something of the opposite is true: He wants to make every note say everything. Each gesture is the size of a novel, not an aphorism. So Mozart's elegant Sonata in B-flat (K. 333) often sounded willful and self-conscious, with oddly forced accents and mannered phrasing. The same held true for much of Schumann's Fantasy in C (Op. 17) , in which each pause was dramatic and tempos changed from measure to measure. So distracting was the constant tinkering that it became difficult to enjoy Lang's signature sound, a wondrous melding of lushness and clarity.
It was easier to appreciate his talents in the second half of the program, which opened with six character-filled arrangements of traditional Chinese melodies. The first of Enrique Granados's "Goyescas" and Liszt's Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody were big, blustery showpieces, Lang's fingers never missing a note through their forests of booming chords and quicksilver runs. Just in case anyone thought that his romp through the Liszt was a fluke, he brought out the Second Rhapsody as an encore, and tore that up as well, to the audience's frenzied approval.
It's tempting to say that Lang is only at home in such virtuoso fare, where his dexterity is on total display. That would be a mistake. He is far too accomplished to be dismissed as a mere showman, but it remains difficult to see how his musical insight will deepen and grow.
Two of Sunday's entries offered clues, though. In Liszt's transcription of the Liebestod from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," Lang allowed the piece's famous melody to sing ethereally while maintaining full control over the myriad other voices. And the last movement of the Schumann Fantasy unfolded, dreamlike, with perfectly even legato and transparency. Both were spellbinding. They may have been hints at Lang's way forward.