In The Stream Of Bach’s ‘Goldbergs,’ Lang Lang Sees Romantic Virtuoso

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Lang Lang performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 12. (Photos by Chris Lee)

NEW YORK — Bach’s Goldberg Variations have withstood myriad interpretations and arrangements since he composed them for a two-manual harpsichord in 1741. Now commonly performed on the piano (and on occasion even the harp and the marimba), the “Goldbergs” have been memorably interpreted in recent years by pianists including András Schiff, Igor Levit, Jeremy Denk, and Beatrice Rana.

What the piece can’t quite withstand, however, is Lang Lang’s vision. At approximately 90 minutes and with every repeat taken, his version lasts about 40 minutes longer than average, a performance at times so sluggish it seemed as if notes were being dragged through treacle. 

Lang Lang, who has studied the “Goldbergs” for more than 20 years, recently recorded the work twice in Germany for Deutsche Grammophon: a live recording at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (where Bach worked and is buried) and a studio recording in Berlin. He performed the work at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 12 as part of a global tour that had barely kicked off before the first COVID shutdowns in 2020. This Carnegie concert was sold out, but the audience seemed restless and fidgety, and there were a number of defections throughout. Perhaps those listeners were disappointed with Lang Lang’s switch to Bach from his signature Romantic-era repertoire. I tried to keep an open mind, but I was often tempted to join the escapees and make a dash for the exit.

Carnegie Hall was sold out for Lang Lang’s recital.

Lang Lang has been criticized for unnecessary emoting in much of his repertoire, and he certainly imbued Schumann’s short, whimsical Arabesque, the somewhat random opener for the “Goldbergs,” with an exaggerated rubato. His playing was also admirable for its lovely voicing and a limpid tone. He brought plenty of Romantic flourishes, dramatic rubatos, and overly fussy touches to the “Goldbergs” as well. Some of his ideas were just strange. Throughout the work, for example, the voicing and articulation in the left hand sounded as if a dogmatic teacher were banging on a blackboard to make a point.  

The Russian diplomat Count Hermann Carl von Keyserling commissioned the “Goldbergs” for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the young harpsichordist who lived with his household. It’s the fourth (and final) part of Bach’s Keyboard Practice, a survey of mid-18th century keyboard genres, forms, and styles. Twenty-seven of the Goldberg Variations are in G major, the remaining three in g minor. Since Glenn Gould’s landmark and highly idiosyncratic 1955 recording, pianists have freely imbued the work with their own ideas, from ornamentation to tempo to voicing — but music of any genre can only be simultaneously stretched in so many directions before it starts sounding like the aural equivalent of a fun-house mirror.

The most successful variations in Lang Lang’s take were the ones he didn’t distort unnecessarily, such as the gracefully flowing second, sixth, and 17th variations, a sparkling, immaculate fifth variation, a deftly articulated No. 8 and a vivacious No. 28. Others, such as the painfully slow 25th variation (the “Black Pearl”) seemed interminable.

Lang Lang at the end of his Carnegie Hall concert.

There were two encores: an indulgent rendition of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” and a winning arrangement of the traditional Chinese piece “Jasmine Song,” which the audience seemed thrilled with. Musicians often aim to “prove” their musicianship with Bach or Beethoven, and during this concert, Lang Lang proved (again) that he is a virtuoso able to dazzle with jaw-dropping speed, precision, and a flawless memory.

But that’s not enough. Bach described the “Goldbergs” as “composed for music lovers, to refresh their spirits.” By the time the Aria da Capo made its appearance again, stretched into oblivion after 90 long minutes, my spirits were rather crushed.

Lang Lang’s tour of the “Goldberg Variations” concludes in London on Dec. 12.

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