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RMCR Challenge — Lang Lang's Goldberg Variations
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Oscar
2020-09-04 21:09:56 UTC
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Other social media does it, why not us? Our first Challenge! You know, along the lines of ALS ice bucket challenge, #nomakeupselfie, The 7-day gratitude challenge, and so on and so forth. With yesterday's worldwide release of Lang Lang's Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach—on 4 (!), count 'em, CDs, no less*—our time has come to listen to a performance and then report our symptoms herein. Listening to Lang's BWV 988, what feelings did you experience? Did you break out in a rash or smash anything? At what point did you suffer a psychological break from reality? And most importantly, did you secretly enjoy it? (oooh!) No one need buy the CD in order to participate. Just dial up yr streaming service and give it a virtual whirl. Should be...fun?

"This deluxe edition features a unique, world-first offering with simultaneous [sic] studio & live recording." Sooo, made at the _same_ time in studio and on stage? Wow, he _is_ talented. The live recording made at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig; studio one taped at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, March 18, 2020.

*The standard edition presents only the studio version on 2CDs.

https://www.deutschegrammophon.com/en/composers/langlang

https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8796483--j-s-bach-goldberg-variations-bwv988


Review in The New York Times:

<< Lang Lang, Piano Thunderer, Greets Bach’s Austere ‘Goldbergs’
For 20 years, the superstar pianist resisted playing this towering work in public. Now he’s releasing not one recording of it, but two.

By Joshua Barone
August 21, 2020

Habits are hard to break. That’s one reason people are still asking “How’s it going?” during a world-upending pandemic. A similarly reflexive “Fine” often follows, which is why it was so jarring when, during a recent interview, the pianist Lang Lang responded with a wince and shouted: “It’s horrible!”

This is a difficult time for everyone in classical music, as in-person performances have all but come to a halt worldwide. Mr. Lang, one of the industry’s biggest stars and moneymakers, is relatively safe from financial devastation. But being sidelined by forces beyond his control is painfully familiar to him. He injured his left arm in 2017, and the recovery put him out of commission for more than a year.

“I’ve had a break already,” Mr. Lang, 38, said over Zoom from his home in Shanghai. “This time, I’m so ready, but I cannot play a concert. That’s much more frustrating.”

Mr. Lang’s return from his injury has been incremental, starting with less muscular fare than the Romantic war horses that made him famous, then building back toward those thunderous concertos — while also weaving in new repertoire. This year was meant to focus on a major project for him: a tour of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and a recording of the work on Deutsche Grammophon, out next month.

He made it three stops into the tour, all in Germany, before the rest was canceled. But before leaving, he made a studio recording of the “Goldbergs” in Berlin and a live one at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked.

Both versions will be on the coming release. That wasn’t always the plan, Mr. Lang said, but he pushed to include the live performance after listening to it and finding that he appreciated its spontaneity and “floating” nature. Still, he added, he prefers the studio recording, which he believes shows more depth.

Few works elicit more varied interpretations than the “Goldbergs.” Performers bring personal touches to repertory staples like concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but on balance those works have a consistent running time and a generally agreed upon sound. But Bach’s set of 30 variations, surrounded by two iterations of an Aria of music-box simplicity, is written with such austerity that it’s something of a blank canvas. There is no rule book for ornamentation; virtually absent tempo markings mean it can last less than an hour or, in the case of Mr. Lang’s reading, more than 90 minutes. It can be heard on harpsichords or modern pianos, or even transcribed for other instruments.

Despite being an audience favorite, Mr. Lang has long left critics scratching their heads over his undeniable skill and his questionable taste, his expressiveness and his pop star mannerisms. And he will yet again divide listeners with his “Goldbergs.” Baroque specialists in particular may bristle at his occasionally counterintuitive voicing, with unconventional emphasis on particular notes and phrases, and his rubato — rhythmic manipulation that sometimes pushes the meter toward unrecognizability. The slow 25th variation, which typically lasts six or seven minutes, is here stretched beyond 10; Mr. Lang’s studio version of the closing Aria is nearly six and a half minutes long, while most pianists stay shy of four.

But regardless what people think about Mr. Lang’s interpretation, they cannot write it off as unconsidered. It’s deeply felt and two decades in the making.

Like all piano students, Mr. Lang played a lot of Bach as a child, from the easy minuets to the encyclopedic “Well-Tempered Clavier.” He used fast sections of the “Goldbergs” for exercises, but didn’t perform the work in its entirety until, after coming to stardom as a substitute at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 1999, he recounted it from memory in the middle of the night for some fellow musicians.

Mr. Lang said he didn’t want to publicly share his “Goldbergs” until the moment felt right. In his mid-20s, he played the work for the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt during an informal audition for the Salzburg Festival. He recalled Harnoncourt saying, “You play Bach with no imagination,” urging him to play with fewer reservations and more lyrical melodic lines.

“He started singing the theme of Variation 3, and I was like, wow, can Bach be played this Romantic?” Mr. Lang said. “I was quite overwhelmed by his emotions.”

Mr. Lang has since sought advice from other artists, including the German pianist and harpsichordist Andreas Staier, who taught him the importance of approaching the “Goldbergs” with scholarly rigor. Learning the piece, Mr. Lang said, has improved his understanding of composition, and of music itself.

“It takes you to another level of thinking,” he said.

With his copy of the score in hand, Mr. Lang discussed what he has learned about the “Goldbergs,” and how he arrived at his interpretation. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Your career was made with Romantic concertos, but lately you’ve worked backward in time, now to the Baroque. Does this style come naturally to you?

It does, but I’ve played it much less than the Romantic or Classical repertoire. And Bach is another planet. When I met Andreas [Staier], he told me this piece needs to have a real knowledge behind the strategy. You cannot think about this as a 10-minute or a 30-minute piece or concerto. You have to hold your cards in your hands and not throw your cards at the same time. He said I had to learn each variation with a kind of calm temperament, and not get overheated on Variation 1.

What has guided your interpretation?

This is an entire piece, but at the same time it’s separate pieces. In that way, each of the variations has to have a calculated way of playing. You cannot play everything the same way.

I feel like you’re most personal in the rubato and ornamentation. Those can be difficult to balance, and Baroque rules can be very particular. How did you find what works for you?

With rubato, it’s the theory of the roots of the tree and the leaves going up. In this case, the left hand is not always the roots in Bach’s music. In the Aria it is, but in other variations, maybe it’s the middle voice. But you always need to find where the roots are, and those need to be steady. Then the melodic line can be a little different. I realized doing some of my studio recording, sometimes I gave a lot of rubato and had to come back, because then it can fall apart very easily. You can hear that you’re losing the pulse.

You play as little ornamentation as possible the first time through. [Each section of the “Goldbergs” is divided into two parts that are both repeated.] Then on the repeat you can do ornamentation to give it a little bit of improvisational style. If it sounds like everything is planned, the ornamentation loses its real meaning. Sometimes, you can even add a few chords here and there to make it a little more colorful. In the French overture, Variation 16, I try to make it more like an organ piece, so I add a little more lower voice. But we have to be careful to not have strange ornamentation that sounds like Messiaen or something. Some of my ornamentation was corrected by Baroque musicians.

Let’s talk about some specific sections. The Aria is a perfect example of how the “Goldbergs” can be played any number of ways.

I intended to play slightly slower than other musicians, especially in the studio. It gives me a quietness, slightly more space. But obviously it needs to be legato. If I can really connect each note, then I can play slower because it gives me a grounded feeling.

And Variation 7, the gigue, is a place where you seem to really loosen up.

For the repeat, I played the chords, the sixth and the third, under the main voice. This is what I learned from the Baroque way of playing. They often add lower sixth and lower third to make it like a bell sound. It’s more notes, but actually a lighter feel. This is the character of the piece. It needs to bubble.

The 26th variation seems like one of the trickiest. You have to decide whether to emphasize those effervescent runs or the dancing melody.

I was always playing this as an exercise as a kid. This is maybe the most difficult variation, technically. You can actually play around with it each time, with a different priority — sometimes more on the left hand, or more on the right hand. But if you do that, you’d better stay with your choice two bars, or four. Don’t switch too fast.

For an open-ended section like this, do you consult with older recordings or artists?

Especially on this one, I got a huge inspiration from Glenn Gould. He is someone who is not afraid to play fast passages really fast. I think that’s why people like his “Goldberg” Variations. It has such an inspired character. He gave me the confidence that some parts can be very exciting; you can just let it go.

What does the return of the Aria at the end mean for you?

Variation 30 is the most important connection for me. It’s a combination of three popular songs, German folk songs. I copied the lyrics, and the third is about home. This created a great transition to the Aria. And without this variation I think the Aria would be so much harder to play, after those fireworks: After the Adagio, Variation 25, you have four variations that are fast and virtuosic. It’s just impossible to get back to the Aria. But when you have this family reunion song in the 30th, you suddenly realize that you are getting older.

The truth is, we don’t need to think too much to play the Aria this second time. It’s already different, automatically, no matter what you do. After certain things, you’re changed. You don’t need to say it; you just are.

—Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. https://twitter.com/joshbarone >>

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/arts/music/lang-lang-bach-goldberg.html
Oscar
2020-09-04 21:23:07 UTC
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Mahan Esfahani
@MahanEsfahani

Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism : whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.

3:20 PM · Sep 3, 2020 · Twitter for iPad


Josh Barone
@joshbarone

I don't think this is inaccurate. Just look at the words used to criticize Lang Lang; it's knee-jerk vocabulary applied often to Asian musicians. But further complicating things, vis-à-vis praising European pianists, is a generally distorted sense of how Bach should sound.

11:06 AM · Sep 4, 2020 · Twitter Web App

https://twitter.com/joshbarone/status/1301944664803684353?s=20
Frank Berger
2020-09-04 21:36:36 UTC
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Post by Oscar
Mahan Esfahani
@MahanEsfahani
Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism : whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.
3:20 PM · Sep 3, 2020 · Twitter for iPad
Josh Barone
@joshbarone
I don't think this is inaccurate. Just look at the words used to criticize Lang Lang; it's knee-jerk vocabulary applied often to Asian musicians. But further complicating things, vis-à-vis praising European pianists, is a generally distorted sense of how Bach should sound.
11:06 AM · Sep 4, 2020 · Twitter Web App
https://twitter.com/joshbarone/status/1301944664803684353?s=20
Implicit racism? Is that when you don't like an outcome, but
can't find any actual evidence of racism?
Oscar
2020-09-04 21:54:33 UTC
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Post by Frank Berger
Implicit racism? Is that when you don't like an outcome, but
can't find any actual evidence of racism?
Précisément, Frank.

Does anyone have any harsh words for Maasaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan, whose Choral Works project for BIS is one of the towering recording projects of the past 25 years? No. Because it is magnificent music-making fitting of its material. Not cloying and artistically vapid.
Frank Berger
2020-09-04 22:05:23 UTC
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Post by Oscar
Post by Frank Berger
Implicit racism? Is that when you don't like an outcome, but
can't find any actual evidence of racism?
Précisément, Frank.
Does anyone have any harsh words for Maasaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan, whose Choral Works project for BIS is one of the towering recording projects of the past 25 years? No. Because it is magnificent music-making fitting of its material. Not cloying and artistically vapid.
Could be that even among the positive reviews for Suzuki
that there are racist comments or stereotypes invoked (He's
a credit to his race, for example). But that would be
explicit racism, not implicit.
Bozo
2020-09-05 00:48:46 UTC
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Post by Frank Berger
Implicit racism? Is that when you don't like an outcome, but
can't find any actual evidence of racism?
No, implicit racism is the condition that exists when racists think they have successfully disguised their racism and fooled everyone. Fortunately,the ruse is successful only about 40 % of the time.
Bob Harper
2020-09-05 02:08:05 UTC
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Post by Bozo
Post by Frank Berger
Implicit racism? Is that when you don't like an outcome, but
can't find any actual evidence of racism?
No, implicit racism is the condition that exists when racists think they have successfully disguised their racism and fooled everyone. Fortunately,the ruse is successful only about 40 % of the time.
Steve, this implies (!) that you know how to sniff it out, while the
rest of the benighted don't. Whence this special talent?

FWIW, racism is an ACT, and it's difficult for me to envisage an
implicit act. But of course its great virtue is as a stick with which to
beat those with whom you disagree. Or so it seems to me.

Bob Harper
Bozo
2020-09-05 20:33:59 UTC
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Post by Bob Harper
. Whence this special talent?
Whence Trump tells you who he is, I believe him:

https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/515239-white-house-tells-federal-agencies-to-cancel-divisive-racial
Oscar
2020-09-06 02:38:20 UTC
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This morning Lang made the Drudge Report, which has been, since the Monica Lewinsky scandal, one of the most widely-read of all web pages, year-in year-out. Headline to hyperlink was 'Chinese pianist Lang Lang says Bach the remedy for troubled times'. Link was to a British publication, can't remember off-hand. Who was last major classical musician to appear on front page of Drudge? Rubinstein? ;-)
Bozo
2020-09-06 11:41:56 UTC
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https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/515239-white-house-tells-federal-agencies-to-cancel->divisive-racial
Trump on Fox News recently , https://www.nj.com/politics/2020/09/trump-keeps-claiming-biden-will-bring-crime-to-the-suburbs-and-cory-booker-will-lead-the-way.html

“You have this beautiful community in the suburbs, including women,” Trump said on the Fox News Channel Monday night. “I ended where they build low-income housing projects right in the middle of your neighborhood. If Biden goes in, he already said it’s going to go at a much higher rate than ever before. You know whose going to be in charge of it ? Cory Booker. That’s going to be nice.”
“They want low-income housing and with that comes a lot of other problems, including crime,” he said.
Henk vT
2020-09-04 22:19:19 UTC
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Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism: whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.
LL has a great technique and a beautiful tone but that isn't enough. I prefer Beatrice Rana's Goldbergs. Those who disagree are implicit anti-feminists.

Henk
Bob Harper
2020-09-05 00:46:48 UTC
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Post by Henk vT
Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism: whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.
LL has a great technique and a beautiful tone but that isn't enough. I prefer Beatrice Rana's Goldbergs. Those who disagree are implicit anti-feminists.
Henk
The burning question of the day, Henk, is this:

Does sexism trump racism, or vice-versa. And to Frank's point, if both
are implicit, how are we supposed to know?

I guess we should just ask Mahan Esfahani and Josh Barone. Or not.

Bob Harper
Henk vT
2020-09-05 09:19:16 UTC
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Post by Bob Harper
Does sexism trump racism, or vice-versa.
No, since some of us can be racist as well as sexist.
Post by Bob Harper
And to Frank's point, if both are implicit, how are we supposed to know?
We don't know. But there are always those who love to point out who we really are.

Henk
Bob Harper
2020-09-05 16:12:13 UTC
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Post by Henk vT
Post by Bob Harper
Does sexism trump racism, or vice-versa.
No, since some of us can be racist as well as sexist.
Post by Bob Harper
And to Frank's point, if both are implicit, how are we supposed to know?
We don't know. But there are always those who love to point out who we really are.
Henk
Exactly, even if they also have no way to know.

Bob Harper
Andrew Clarke
2020-09-06 05:35:37 UTC
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Post by Bob Harper
Does sexism trump racism, or vice-versa. And to Frank's point, if both
are implicit, how are we supposed to know?
If a white guy had held a firearm to a pregnant woman's stomach during a home invasion, we would never have heard the last of it. So it appears that racism trumps sexism here.

Andrew Clarke
Canberra
g***@gmail.com
2020-09-04 22:48:42 UTC
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Post by Oscar
Mahan Esfahani
@MahanEsfahani
Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism : whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.
3:20 PM · Sep 3, 2020 · Twitter for iPad
Josh Barone
@joshbarone
I don't think this is inaccurate. Just look at the words used to criticize Lang Lang; it's knee-jerk vocabulary applied often to Asian musicians. But further complicating things, vis-à-vis praising European pianists, is a generally distorted sense of how Bach should sound.
11:06 AM · Sep 4, 2020 · Twitter Web App
https://twitter.com/joshbarone/status/1301944664803684353?s=20
He's not the 1st Asian musician to record the Goldberg V.:

https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=https://www.continuoclassics.com/&prev=search&pto=aue
g***@gmail.com
2020-09-04 22:49:00 UTC
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Post by Oscar
Mahan Esfahani
@MahanEsfahani
Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism : whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.
3:20 PM · Sep 3, 2020 · Twitter for iPad
Josh Barone
@joshbarone
I don't think this is inaccurate. Just look at the words used to criticize Lang Lang; it's knee-jerk vocabulary applied often to Asian musicians. But further complicating things, vis-à-vis praising European pianists, is a generally distorted sense of how Bach should sound.
11:06 AM · Sep 4, 2020 · Twitter Web App
https://twitter.com/joshbarone/status/1301944664803684353?s=20
He's not the 1st Asian musician to record the Goldberg V.:

https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=https://www.continuoclassics.com/&prev=search&pto=aue
g***@gmail.com
2020-09-04 22:57:09 UTC
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Post by Oscar
Mahan Esfahani
@MahanEsfahani
Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism : whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.
3:20 PM · Sep 3, 2020 · Twitter for iPad
Josh Barone
@joshbarone
I don't think this is inaccurate. Just look at the words used to criticize Lang Lang; it's knee-jerk vocabulary applied often to Asian musicians. But further complicating things, vis-à-vis praising European pianists, is a generally distorted sense of how Bach should sound.
11:06 AM · Sep 4, 2020 · Twitter Web App
https://twitter.com/joshbarone/status/1301944664803684353?s=20
L.L. is not the first Asian to record the Goldberg V.:

http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=https://www.continuoclassics.com/&prev=search&pto=aue&authuser=1
Tassilo
2020-09-07 07:09:53 UTC
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Post by Oscar
Mahan Esfahani
@MahanEsfahani
Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism : whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.
That's not racism, implicit or otherwise. Of course, we live in an age where many people are determined to find racism everywhere. Case in point. -Tassilo
Frank Berger
2020-09-07 13:09:42 UTC
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Post by Tassilo
Post by Oscar
Mahan Esfahani
@MahanEsfahani
Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism : whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.
That's not racism, implicit or otherwise. Of course, we live in an age where many people are determined to find racism everywhere. Case in point. -Tassilo
I comes down to how pervasive one thinks racism is. If you
think it's all pervasive or nearly so, then this situation
really IS likely to be due to racism, though you can't tell
and still have no business claiming it as a fact. If you
think racism is much less pervasive then racism in this case
is a less likely explanation, but still possible and still
unidentifiable.

It's bad science to attribute a result to an unobserved
causal factor.
Bob Harper
2020-09-07 19:26:23 UTC
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Post by Tassilo
Post by Oscar
Mahan Esfahani
@MahanEsfahani
Just to be clear, when the gatekeepers of classical music greet Lang Lang’s Goldbergs with disdain but continue to praise to the skies some pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism : whatever you make of L.L., the implicit racism is obvious, sorry.
That's not racism, implicit or otherwise. Of course, we live in an age where many people are determined to find racism everywhere. Case in point. -Tassilo
Agreed. Of course, agreement will get me convic\ted of 'racism' by the
proponents of critical race theory. You, of course, are already guilty :).

Bob Harper
wkasimer
2020-09-08 15:38:09 UTC
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Post by Tassilo
That's not racism, implicit or otherwise. Of course, we live in an age where many people are determined to find racism everywhere. Case in point.
I agree completely. I listened to both versions, and I think that it's fair to say that this is a recording that will elicit a wide variety of opinions. It is heavily romanticized, and about as far from "authentic" as I could imagine. It's interesting to hear, but I doubt that I'll be returning to it often - the tempi, rubato, and some odd emphases are a bit too much for me - but I can imagine that others will love it.

Esfahani's statement about racism is absurd - but if he's referring to Angela Hewitt as an example of "pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism", he's right.
Neil
2020-09-09 14:01:05 UTC
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Post by wkasimer
Post by Tassilo
That's not racism, implicit or otherwise. Of course, we live in an age where many people are determined to find racism everywhere. Case in point.
I agree completely. I listened to both versions, and I think that it's fair to say that this is a recording that will elicit a wide variety of opinions. It is heavily romanticized, and about as far from "authentic" as I could imagine. It's interesting to hear, but I doubt that I'll be returning to it often - the tempi, rubato, and some odd emphases are a bit too much for me - but I can imagine that others will love it.
Esfahani's statement about racism is absurd - but if he's referring to Angela Hewitt as an example of "pretty bad and bland Bach playing from contemporary European pianism", he's right.
I listened yesterday. Nothing to object to in Lang Lang's gouldbergs. I was not overly keen on the ornamentation in the repeats and he stabbed out the baseline in the 1st variation in a Gould 1981 way. Not much else stuck in my mind.

I really enjoy the Ignacio Prego harpsichord recording mentioned here. Seems to have everything going for it and really holds my attention.
LarryLap
2020-09-05 03:26:27 UTC
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Post by Oscar
Other social media does it, why not us? Our first Challenge! You know, along the lines of ALS ice bucket challenge, #nomakeupselfie, The 7-day gratitude challenge, and so on and so forth. With yesterday's worldwide release of Lang Lang's Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach—on 4 (!), count 'em, CDs, no less*—our time has come to listen to a performance and then report our symptoms herein. Listening to Lang's BWV 988, what feelings did you experience? Did you break out in a rash or smash anything? At what point did you suffer a psychological break from reality? And most importantly, did you secretly enjoy it? (oooh!) No one need buy the CD in order to participate. Just dial up yr streaming service and give it a virtual whirl. Should be...fun?
"This deluxe edition features a unique, world-first offering with simultaneous [sic] studio & live recording." Sooo, made at the _same_ time in studio and on stage? Wow, he _is_ talented. The live recording made at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig; studio one taped at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, March 18, 2020.
*The standard edition presents only the studio version on 2CDs.
https://www.deutschegrammophon.com/en/composers/langlang
https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8796483--j-s-bach-goldberg-variations-bwv988
<< Lang Lang, Piano Thunderer, Greets Bach’s Austere ‘Goldbergs’
For 20 years, the superstar pianist resisted playing this towering work in public. Now he’s releasing not one recording of it, but two.
By Joshua Barone
August 21, 2020
Habits are hard to break. That’s one reason people are still asking “How’s it going?” during a world-upending pandemic. A similarly reflexive “Fine” often follows, which is why it was so jarring when, during a recent interview, the pianist Lang Lang responded with a wince and shouted: “It’s horrible!”
This is a difficult time for everyone in classical music, as in-person performances have all but come to a halt worldwide. Mr. Lang, one of the industry’s biggest stars and moneymakers, is relatively safe from financial devastation. But being sidelined by forces beyond his control is painfully familiar to him. He injured his left arm in 2017, and the recovery put him out of commission for more than a year.
“I’ve had a break already,” Mr. Lang, 38, said over Zoom from his home in Shanghai. “This time, I’m so ready, but I cannot play a concert. That’s much more frustrating.”
Mr. Lang’s return from his injury has been incremental, starting with less muscular fare than the Romantic war horses that made him famous, then building back toward those thunderous concertos — while also weaving in new repertoire. This year was meant to focus on a major project for him: a tour of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and a recording of the work on Deutsche Grammophon, out next month.
He made it three stops into the tour, all in Germany, before the rest was canceled. But before leaving, he made a studio recording of the “Goldbergs” in Berlin and a live one at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked.
Both versions will be on the coming release. That wasn’t always the plan, Mr. Lang said, but he pushed to include the live performance after listening to it and finding that he appreciated its spontaneity and “floating” nature. Still, he added, he prefers the studio recording, which he believes shows more depth.
Few works elicit more varied interpretations than the “Goldbergs.” Performers bring personal touches to repertory staples like concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but on balance those works have a consistent running time and a generally agreed upon sound. But Bach’s set of 30 variations, surrounded by two iterations of an Aria of music-box simplicity, is written with such austerity that it’s something of a blank canvas. There is no rule book for ornamentation; virtually absent tempo markings mean it can last less than an hour or, in the case of Mr. Lang’s reading, more than 90 minutes. It can be heard on harpsichords or modern pianos, or even transcribed for other instruments.
Despite being an audience favorite, Mr. Lang has long left critics scratching their heads over his undeniable skill and his questionable taste, his expressiveness and his pop star mannerisms. And he will yet again divide listeners with his “Goldbergs.” Baroque specialists in particular may bristle at his occasionally counterintuitive voicing, with unconventional emphasis on particular notes and phrases, and his rubato — rhythmic manipulation that sometimes pushes the meter toward unrecognizability. The slow 25th variation, which typically lasts six or seven minutes, is here stretched beyond 10; Mr. Lang’s studio version of the closing Aria is nearly six and a half minutes long, while most pianists stay shy of four.
But regardless what people think about Mr. Lang’s interpretation, they cannot write it off as unconsidered. It’s deeply felt and two decades in the making.
Like all piano students, Mr. Lang played a lot of Bach as a child, from the easy minuets to the encyclopedic “Well-Tempered Clavier.” He used fast sections of the “Goldbergs” for exercises, but didn’t perform the work in its entirety until, after coming to stardom as a substitute at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 1999, he recounted it from memory in the middle of the night for some fellow musicians.
Mr. Lang said he didn’t want to publicly share his “Goldbergs” until the moment felt right. In his mid-20s, he played the work for the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt during an informal audition for the Salzburg Festival. He recalled Harnoncourt saying, “You play Bach with no imagination,” urging him to play with fewer reservations and more lyrical melodic lines.
“He started singing the theme of Variation 3, and I was like, wow, can Bach be played this Romantic?” Mr. Lang said. “I was quite overwhelmed by his emotions.”
Mr. Lang has since sought advice from other artists, including the German pianist and harpsichordist Andreas Staier, who taught him the importance of approaching the “Goldbergs” with scholarly rigor. Learning the piece, Mr. Lang said, has improved his understanding of composition, and of music itself.
“It takes you to another level of thinking,” he said.
With his copy of the score in hand, Mr. Lang discussed what he has learned about the “Goldbergs,” and how he arrived at his interpretation. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Your career was made with Romantic concertos, but lately you’ve worked backward in time, now to the Baroque. Does this style come naturally to you?
It does, but I’ve played it much less than the Romantic or Classical repertoire. And Bach is another planet. When I met Andreas [Staier], he told me this piece needs to have a real knowledge behind the strategy. You cannot think about this as a 10-minute or a 30-minute piece or concerto. You have to hold your cards in your hands and not throw your cards at the same time. He said I had to learn each variation with a kind of calm temperament, and not get overheated on Variation 1.
What has guided your interpretation?
This is an entire piece, but at the same time it’s separate pieces. In that way, each of the variations has to have a calculated way of playing. You cannot play everything the same way.
I feel like you’re most personal in the rubato and ornamentation. Those can be difficult to balance, and Baroque rules can be very particular. How did you find what works for you?
With rubato, it’s the theory of the roots of the tree and the leaves going up. In this case, the left hand is not always the roots in Bach’s music. In the Aria it is, but in other variations, maybe it’s the middle voice. But you always need to find where the roots are, and those need to be steady. Then the melodic line can be a little different. I realized doing some of my studio recording, sometimes I gave a lot of rubato and had to come back, because then it can fall apart very easily. You can hear that you’re losing the pulse.
You play as little ornamentation as possible the first time through. [Each section of the “Goldbergs” is divided into two parts that are both repeated.] Then on the repeat you can do ornamentation to give it a little bit of improvisational style. If it sounds like everything is planned, the ornamentation loses its real meaning. Sometimes, you can even add a few chords here and there to make it a little more colorful. In the French overture, Variation 16, I try to make it more like an organ piece, so I add a little more lower voice. But we have to be careful to not have strange ornamentation that sounds like Messiaen or something. Some of my ornamentation was corrected by Baroque musicians.
Let’s talk about some specific sections. The Aria is a perfect example of how the “Goldbergs” can be played any number of ways.
I intended to play slightly slower than other musicians, especially in the studio. It gives me a quietness, slightly more space. But obviously it needs to be legato. If I can really connect each note, then I can play slower because it gives me a grounded feeling.
And Variation 7, the gigue, is a place where you seem to really loosen up.
For the repeat, I played the chords, the sixth and the third, under the main voice. This is what I learned from the Baroque way of playing. They often add lower sixth and lower third to make it like a bell sound. It’s more notes, but actually a lighter feel. This is the character of the piece. It needs to bubble.
The 26th variation seems like one of the trickiest. You have to decide whether to emphasize those effervescent runs or the dancing melody.
I was always playing this as an exercise as a kid. This is maybe the most difficult variation, technically. You can actually play around with it each time, with a different priority — sometimes more on the left hand, or more on the right hand. But if you do that, you’d better stay with your choice two bars, or four. Don’t switch too fast.
For an open-ended section like this, do you consult with older recordings or artists?
Especially on this one, I got a huge inspiration from Glenn Gould. He is someone who is not afraid to play fast passages really fast. I think that’s why people like his “Goldberg” Variations. It has such an inspired character. He gave me the confidence that some parts can be very exciting; you can just let it go.
What does the return of the Aria at the end mean for you?
Variation 30 is the most important connection for me. It’s a combination of three popular songs, German folk songs. I copied the lyrics, and the third is about home. This created a great transition to the Aria. And without this variation I think the Aria would be so much harder to play, after those fireworks: After the Adagio, Variation 25, you have four variations that are fast and virtuosic. It’s just impossible to get back to the Aria. But when you have this family reunion song in the 30th, you suddenly realize that you are getting older.
The truth is, we don’t need to think too much to play the Aria this second time. It’s already different, automatically, no matter what you do. After certain things, you’re changed. You don’t need to say it; you just are.
—Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. https://twitter.com/joshbarone >>
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/arts/music/lang-lang-bach-goldberg.html
I liked your idea of focusing the attention of our group on a certain controversial recording, and I am sorry to see how quickly the discussion degenerated into a cacophony of irrelevant nonsense about racism. Lang Lang is a deficient artist for reasons having nothing to do with his or anyone else's ethnic origins. He is quite unmistakably lacking in certain fundamental aspects of musicianship that one expects to hear in a merely competent, not to mention outstanding performance: discipline, consistency and coherence. I think Aristotle has something to say about these qualities in the Poetics, when he describes the artworks generally regarded as well-made. I set out to listen through Lang Lang's rendition of Bach's Goldberg Variations, but could only hold out for a little under twenty minutes. I don't now, and really never have, held the value of my time to be so cheap that I could afford to exchange it for exposure to the work of someone who cannot or will not hold himself to a decision about whether to play in tempo or not, whether to make a voice in a polyphonic composition audible or inaudible, whether to play both hands in unison or not, and so on. If the artist wishes to make these decisions differently at different times, there is nothing wrong in that, provided that these differences have some ascertainable connection with the music, that they impart or reveal some significance in the notes, not merely to reflect the performer's delight in moving his fingers quickly and embellishing where it's least expected, and often least appropriate.
I could go on, but to do so would be to show disrespect for the commitment to the art of music and the interests of the listening public audible in recordings by such artists as Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff, Paul Hirsch, Murray Perahia. Peter Serkin and many others, who have done so much more than Lang Lang to merit our attention.

Larry Lapidus
weary flake
2020-09-06 19:50:01 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by LarryLap
Post by Oscar
Other social media does it, why not us? Our first Challenge! You know,
along the lines of ALS ice bucket challenge, #nomakeupselfie, The 7-day
gratitude challenge, and so on and so forth. With yesterday's worldwide
release of Lang Lang's Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach—on 4 (!), count
'em, CDs, no less*—our time has come to listen to a performance and
then report our symptoms herein. Listening to Lang's BWV 988, what
feelings did you experience? Did you break out in a rash or smash
anything? At what point did you suffer a psychological break from
reality? And most importantly, did you secretly enjoy it? (oooh!) No
one need buy the CD in order to participate. Just dial up yr streaming
service and give it a virtual whirl. Should be...fun?>> "This deluxe
edition features a unique, world-first offering with simultaneous [sic]
studio & live recording." Sooo, made at the _same_ time in studio and
on stage? Wow, he _is_ talented. The live recording made at St. Thomas
Church, Leipzig; studio one taped at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin,
March 18, 2020.>> *The standard edition presents only the studio
version on 2CDs.>>
https://www.deutschegrammophon.com/en/composers/langlang>>
https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8796483--j-s-bach-goldberg-variations-bwv988>>>
Review in The New York Times:>> << Lang Lang, Piano Thunderer, Greets
Bach’s Austere ‘Goldbergs’> For 20 years, the superstar pianist
resisted playing this towering work in public. Now he’s releasing not
one recording of it, but two.>> By Joshua Barone> August 21, 2020>>
Habits are hard to break. That’s one reason people are still asking
“How’s it going?” during a world-upending pandemic. A similarly
reflexive “Fine” often follows, which is why it was so jarring when,
during a recent interview, the pianist Lang Lang responded with a wince
and shouted: “It’s horrible!”>> This is a difficult time for everyone
in classical music, as in-person performances have all but come to a
halt worldwide. Mr. Lang, one of the industry’s biggest stars and
moneymakers, is relatively safe from financial devastation. But being
sidelined by forces beyond his control is painfully familiar to him. He
injured his left arm in 2017, and the recovery put him out of
commission for more than a year.>> “I’ve had a break already,” Mr.
Lang, 38, said over Zoom from his home in Shanghai. “This time, I’m so
ready, but I cannot play a concert. That’s much more frustrating.”>>
Mr. Lang’s return from his injury has been incremental, starting with
less muscular fare than the Romantic war horses that made him famous,
then building back toward those thunderous concertos — while also
weaving in new repertoire. This year was meant to focus on a major
project for him: a tour of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and a recording
of the work on Deutsche Grammophon, out next month.>> He made it three
stops into the tour, all in Germany, before the rest was canceled. But
before leaving, he made a studio recording of the “Goldbergs” in Berlin
and a live one at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked.>>
Both versions will be on the coming release. That wasn’t always the
plan, Mr. Lang said, but he pushed to include the live performance
after listening to it and finding that he appreciated its spontaneity
and “floating” nature. Still, he added, he prefers the studio
recording, which he believes shows more depth.>> Few works elicit more
varied interpretations than the “Goldbergs.” Performers bring personal
touches to repertory staples like concertos by Tchaikovsky and
Rachmaninoff, but on balance those works have a consistent running time
and a generally agreed upon sound. But Bach’s set of 30 variations,
surrounded by two iterations of an Aria of music-box simplicity, is
written with such austerity that it’s something of a blank canvas.
There is no rule book for ornamentation; virtually absent tempo
markings mean it can last less than an hour or, in the case of Mr.
Lang’s reading, more than 90 minutes. It can be heard on harpsichords
or modern pianos, or even transcribed for other instruments.>> Despite
being an audience favorite, Mr. Lang has long left critics scratching
their heads over his undeniable skill and his questionable taste, his
expressiveness and his pop star mannerisms. And he will yet again
divide listeners with his “Goldbergs.” Baroque specialists in
particular may bristle at his occasionally counterintuitive voicing,
with unconventional emphasis on particular notes and phrases, and his
rubato — rhythmic manipulation that sometimes pushes the meter toward
unrecognizability. The slow 25th variation, which typically lasts six
or seven minutes, is here stretched beyond 10; Mr. Lang’s studio
version of the closing Aria is nearly six and a half minutes long,
while most pianists stay shy of four.>> But regardless what people
think about Mr. Lang’s interpretation, they cannot write it off as
unconsidered. It’s deeply felt and two decades in the making.>> Like
all piano students, Mr. Lang played a lot of Bach as a child, from the
easy minuets to the encyclopedic “Well-Tempered Clavier.” He used fast
sections of the “Goldbergs” for exercises, but didn’t perform the work
in its entirety until, after coming to stardom as a substitute at the
Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 1999, he recounted it from memory in
the middle of the night for some fellow musicians.>> Mr. Lang said he
didn’t want to publicly share his “Goldbergs” until the moment felt
right. In his mid-20s, he played the work for the conductor Nikolaus
Harnoncourt during an informal audition for the Salzburg Festival. He
recalled Harnoncourt saying, “You play Bach with no imagination,”
urging him to play with fewer reservations and more lyrical melodic
lines.>> “He started singing the theme of Variation 3, and I was like,
wow, can Bach be played this Romantic?” Mr. Lang said. “I was quite
overwhelmed by his emotions.”>> Mr. Lang has since sought advice from
other artists, including the German pianist and harpsichordist Andreas
Staier, who taught him the importance of approaching the “Goldbergs”
with scholarly rigor. Learning the piece, Mr. Lang said, has improved
his understanding of composition, and of music itself.>> “It takes you
to another level of thinking,” he said.>> With his copy of the score in
hand, Mr. Lang discussed what he has learned about the “Goldbergs,” and
how he arrived at his interpretation. Here are edited excerpts from the
conversation.>> Your career was made with Romantic concertos, but
lately you’ve worked backward in time, now to the Baroque. Does this
style come naturally to you?>> It does, but I’ve played it much less
than the Romantic or Classical repertoire. And Bach is another planet.
When I met Andreas [Staier], he told me this piece needs to have a real
knowledge behind the strategy. You cannot think about this as a
10-minute or a 30-minute piece or concerto. You have to hold your cards
in your hands and not throw your cards at the same time. He said I had
to learn each variation with a kind of calm temperament, and not get
overheated on Variation 1.>> What has guided your interpretation?>>
This is an entire piece, but at the same time it’s separate pieces. In
that way, each of the variations has to have a calculated way of
playing. You cannot play everything the same way.>> I feel like you’re
most personal in the rubato and ornamentation. Those can be difficult
to balance, and Baroque rules can be very particular. How did you find
what works for you?>> With rubato, it’s the theory of the roots of the
tree and the leaves going up. In this case, the left hand is not always
the roots in Bach’s music. In the Aria it is, but in other variations,
maybe it’s the middle voice. But you always need to find where the
roots are, and those need to be steady. Then the melodic line can be a
little different. I realized doing some of my studio recording,
sometimes I gave a lot of rubato and had to come back, because then it
can fall apart very easily. You can hear that you’re losing the
pulse.>> You play as little ornamentation as possible the first time
through. [Each section of the “Goldbergs” is divided into two parts
that are both repeated.] Then on the repeat you can do ornamentation to
give it a little bit of improvisational style. If it sounds like
everything is planned, the ornamentation loses its real meaning.
Sometimes, you can even add a few chords here and there to make it a
little more colorful. In the French overture, Variation 16, I try to
make it more like an organ piece, so I add a little more lower voice.
But we have to be careful to not have strange ornamentation that sounds
like Messiaen or something. Some of my ornamentation was corrected by
Baroque musicians.>> Let’s talk about some specific sections. The Aria
is a perfect example of how the “Goldbergs” can be played any number of
ways.>> I intended to play slightly slower than other musicians,
especially in the studio. It gives me a quietness, slightly more space.
But obviously it needs to be legato. If I can really connect each note,
then I can play slower because it gives me a grounded feeling.>> And
Variation 7, the gigue, is a place where you seem to really loosen
up.>> For the repeat, I played the chords, the sixth and the third,
under the main voice. This is what I learned from the Baroque way of
playing. They often add lower sixth and lower third to make it like a
bell sound. It’s more notes, but actually a lighter feel. This is the
character of the piece. It needs to bubble.>> The 26th variation seems
like one of the trickiest. You have to decide whether to emphasize
those effervescent runs or the dancing melody.>> I was always playing
this as an exercise as a kid. This is maybe the most difficult
variation, technically. You can actually play around with it each time,
with a different priority — sometimes more on the left hand, or more on
the right hand. But if you do that, you’d better stay with your choice
two bars, or four. Don’t switch too fast.>> For an open-ended section
like this, do you consult with older recordings or artists?>>
Especially on this one, I got a huge inspiration from Glenn Gould. He
is someone who is not afraid to play fast passages really fast. I think
that’s why people like his “Goldberg” Variations. It has such an
inspired character. He gave me the confidence that some parts can be
very exciting; you can just let it go.>> What does the return of the
Aria at the end mean for you?>> Variation 30 is the most important
connection for me. It’s a combination of three popular songs, German
folk songs. I copied the lyrics, and the third is about home. This
created a great transition to the Aria. And without this variation I
After the Adagio, Variation 25, you have four variations that are fast
and virtuosic. It’s just impossible to get back to the Aria. But when
you have this family reunion song in the 30th, you suddenly realize
that you are getting older.>> The truth is, we don’t need to think too
much to play the Aria this second time. It’s already different,
automatically, no matter what you do. After certain things, you’re
changed. You don’t need to say it; you just are.>> —Joshua Barone is a
senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about
classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual
art and architecture. https://twitter.com/joshbarone >>>>
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/arts/music/lang-lang-bach-goldberg.html
I liked your idea of focusing the attention of our group on a certain
controversial recording, and I am sorry to see how quickly the
discussion degenerated into a cacophony of irrelevant nonsense about
racism. Lang Lang is a deficient artist for reasons having nothing to
do with his or anyone else's ethnic origins. He is quite unmistakably
lacking in certain fundamental aspects of musicianship that one expects
discipline, consistency and coherence. I think Aristotle has something
to say about these qualities in the Poetics, when he describes the
artworks generally regarded as well-made. I set out to listen through
Lang Lang's rendition of Bach's Goldberg Variations, but could only
hold out for a little under twenty minutes. I don't now, and really
never have, held the value of my time to be so cheap that I could
afford to exchange it for exposure to the work of someone who cannot or
will not hold himself to a decision about whether to play in tempo or
not, whether to make a voice in a polyphonic composition audible or
inaudible, whether to play both hands in unison or not, and so on. If
the artist wishes to make these decisions differently at different
times, there is nothing wrong in that, provided that these differences
have some ascertainable connection with the music, that they impart or
reveal some significance in the notes, not merely to reflect the
performer's delight in moving his fingers quickly and embellishing
where it's least expected, and often least appropriate. I could go
on, but to do so would be to show disrespect for the commitment to the
art of music and the interests of the listening public audible in
recordings by such artists as Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff, Paul Hirsch,
Murray Perahia. Peter Serkin and many others, who have done so much
more than Lang Lang to merit our attention.
Your put down of Lang Lang is implicitly Jewish.
dk
2020-09-07 01:54:00 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by weary flake
Your put down of Lang Lang is implicitly Jewish.
How could Lang van Bang possibly be Jewish ?!?

dk
dk
2020-09-07 02:11:29 UTC
Reply
Permalink
On Monday, September 7, 2020 at 3:50:11 AM UTC+8, weary flake wrote:.
Post by weary flake
Your put down of Lang Lang is implicitly Jewish.
How could Lang van Bang possibly be Jewish ?!?

dk
g***@gmail.com
2020-09-08 01:02:19 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by LarryLap
Post by Oscar
Other social media does it, why not us? Our first Challenge! You know, along the lines of ALS ice bucket challenge, #nomakeupselfie, The 7-day gratitude challenge, and so on and so forth. With yesterday's worldwide release of Lang Lang's Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach—on 4 (!), count 'em, CDs, no less*—our time has come to listen to a performance and then report our symptoms herein. Listening to Lang's BWV 988, what feelings did you experience? Did you break out in a rash or smash anything? At what point did you suffer a psychological break from reality? And most importantly, did you secretly enjoy it? (oooh!) No one need buy the CD in order to participate. Just dial up yr streaming service and give it a virtual whirl. Should be...fun?
"This deluxe edition features a unique, world-first offering with simultaneous [sic] studio & live recording." Sooo, made at the _same_ time in studio and on stage? Wow, he _is_ talented. The live recording made at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig; studio one taped at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, March 18, 2020.
*The standard edition presents only the studio version on 2CDs.
https://www.deutschegrammophon.com/en/composers/langlang
https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8796483--j-s-bach-goldberg-variations-bwv988
<< Lang Lang, Piano Thunderer, Greets Bach’s Austere ‘Goldbergs’
For 20 years, the superstar pianist resisted playing this towering work in public. Now he’s releasing not one recording of it, but two.
By Joshua Barone
August 21, 2020
Habits are hard to break. That’s one reason people are still asking “How’s it going?” during a world-upending pandemic. A similarly reflexive “Fine” often follows, which is why it was so jarring when, during a recent interview, the pianist Lang Lang responded with a wince and shouted: “It’s horrible!”
This is a difficult time for everyone in classical music, as in-person performances have all but come to a halt worldwide. Mr. Lang, one of the industry’s biggest stars and moneymakers, is relatively safe from financial devastation. But being sidelined by forces beyond his control is painfully familiar to him. He injured his left arm in 2017, and the recovery put him out of commission for more than a year.
“I’ve had a break already,” Mr. Lang, 38, said over Zoom from his home in Shanghai. “This time, I’m so ready, but I cannot play a concert. That’s much more frustrating.”
Mr. Lang’s return from his injury has been incremental, starting with less muscular fare than the Romantic war horses that made him famous, then building back toward those thunderous concertos — while also weaving in new repertoire. This year was meant to focus on a major project for him: a tour of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and a recording of the work on Deutsche Grammophon, out next month.
He made it three stops into the tour, all in Germany, before the rest was canceled. But before leaving, he made a studio recording of the “Goldbergs” in Berlin and a live one at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked.
Both versions will be on the coming release. That wasn’t always the plan, Mr. Lang said, but he pushed to include the live performance after listening to it and finding that he appreciated its spontaneity and “floating” nature. Still, he added, he prefers the studio recording, which he believes shows more depth.
Few works elicit more varied interpretations than the “Goldbergs.” Performers bring personal touches to repertory staples like concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but on balance those works have a consistent running time and a generally agreed upon sound. But Bach’s set of 30 variations, surrounded by two iterations of an Aria of music-box simplicity, is written with such austerity that it’s something of a blank canvas. There is no rule book for ornamentation; virtually absent tempo markings mean it can last less than an hour or, in the case of Mr. Lang’s reading, more than 90 minutes. It can be heard on harpsichords or modern pianos, or even transcribed for other instruments.
Despite being an audience favorite, Mr. Lang has long left critics scratching their heads over his undeniable skill and his questionable taste, his expressiveness and his pop star mannerisms. And he will yet again divide listeners with his “Goldbergs.” Baroque specialists in particular may bristle at his occasionally counterintuitive voicing, with unconventional emphasis on particular notes and phrases, and his rubato — rhythmic manipulation that sometimes pushes the meter toward unrecognizability. The slow 25th variation, which typically lasts six or seven minutes, is here stretched beyond 10; Mr. Lang’s studio version of the closing Aria is nearly six and a half minutes long, while most pianists stay shy of four.
But regardless what people think about Mr. Lang’s interpretation, they cannot write it off as unconsidered. It’s deeply felt and two decades in the making.
Like all piano students, Mr. Lang played a lot of Bach as a child, from the easy minuets to the encyclopedic “Well-Tempered Clavier.” He used fast sections of the “Goldbergs” for exercises, but didn’t perform the work in its entirety until, after coming to stardom as a substitute at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 1999, he recounted it from memory in the middle of the night for some fellow musicians.
Mr. Lang said he didn’t want to publicly share his “Goldbergs” until the moment felt right. In his mid-20s, he played the work for the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt during an informal audition for the Salzburg Festival. He recalled Harnoncourt saying, “You play Bach with no imagination,” urging him to play with fewer reservations and more lyrical melodic lines.
“He started singing the theme of Variation 3, and I was like, wow, can Bach be played this Romantic?” Mr. Lang said. “I was quite overwhelmed by his emotions.”
Mr. Lang has since sought advice from other artists, including the German pianist and harpsichordist Andreas Staier, who taught him the importance of approaching the “Goldbergs” with scholarly rigor. Learning the piece, Mr. Lang said, has improved his understanding of composition, and of music itself.
“It takes you to another level of thinking,” he said.
With his copy of the score in hand, Mr. Lang discussed what he has learned about the “Goldbergs,” and how he arrived at his interpretation. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Your career was made with Romantic concertos, but lately you’ve worked backward in time, now to the Baroque. Does this style come naturally to you?
It does, but I’ve played it much less than the Romantic or Classical repertoire. And Bach is another planet. When I met Andreas [Staier], he told me this piece needs to have a real knowledge behind the strategy. You cannot think about this as a 10-minute or a 30-minute piece or concerto. You have to hold your cards in your hands and not throw your cards at the same time. He said I had to learn each variation with a kind of calm temperament, and not get overheated on Variation 1.
What has guided your interpretation?
This is an entire piece, but at the same time it’s separate pieces. In that way, each of the variations has to have a calculated way of playing. You cannot play everything the same way.
I feel like you’re most personal in the rubato and ornamentation. Those can be difficult to balance, and Baroque rules can be very particular. How did you find what works for you?
With rubato, it’s the theory of the roots of the tree and the leaves going up. In this case, the left hand is not always the roots in Bach’s music. In the Aria it is, but in other variations, maybe it’s the middle voice. But you always need to find where the roots are, and those need to be steady. Then the melodic line can be a little different. I realized doing some of my studio recording, sometimes I gave a lot of rubato and had to come back, because then it can fall apart very easily. You can hear that you’re losing the pulse.
You play as little ornamentation as possible the first time through. [Each section of the “Goldbergs” is divided into two parts that are both repeated.] Then on the repeat you can do ornamentation to give it a little bit of improvisational style. If it sounds like everything is planned, the ornamentation loses its real meaning. Sometimes, you can even add a few chords here and there to make it a little more colorful. In the French overture, Variation 16, I try to make it more like an organ piece, so I add a little more lower voice. But we have to be careful to not have strange ornamentation that sounds like Messiaen or something. Some of my ornamentation was corrected by Baroque musicians.
Let’s talk about some specific sections. The Aria is a perfect example of how the “Goldbergs” can be played any number of ways.
I intended to play slightly slower than other musicians, especially in the studio. It gives me a quietness, slightly more space. But obviously it needs to be legato. If I can really connect each note, then I can play slower because it gives me a grounded feeling.
And Variation 7, the gigue, is a place where you seem to really loosen up.
For the repeat, I played the chords, the sixth and the third, under the main voice. This is what I learned from the Baroque way of playing. They often add lower sixth and lower third to make it like a bell sound. It’s more notes, but actually a lighter feel. This is the character of the piece. It needs to bubble.
The 26th variation seems like one of the trickiest. You have to decide whether to emphasize those effervescent runs or the dancing melody.
I was always playing this as an exercise as a kid. This is maybe the most difficult variation, technically. You can actually play around with it each time, with a different priority — sometimes more on the left hand, or more on the right hand. But if you do that, you’d better stay with your choice two bars, or four. Don’t switch too fast.
For an open-ended section like this, do you consult with older recordings or artists?
Especially on this one, I got a huge inspiration from Glenn Gould. He is someone who is not afraid to play fast passages really fast. I think that’s why people like his “Goldberg” Variations. It has such an inspired character. He gave me the confidence that some parts can be very exciting; you can just let it go.
What does the return of the Aria at the end mean for you?
Variation 30 is the most important connection for me. It’s a combination of three popular songs, German folk songs. I copied the lyrics, and the third is about home. This created a great transition to the Aria. And without this variation I think the Aria would be so much harder to play, after those fireworks: After the Adagio, Variation 25, you have four variations that are fast and virtuosic. It’s just impossible to get back to the Aria. But when you have this family reunion song in the 30th, you suddenly realize that you are getting older.
The truth is, we don’t need to think too much to play the Aria this second time. It’s already different, automatically, no matter what you do. After certain things, you’re changed. You don’t need to say it; you just are.
—Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. https://twitter.com/joshbarone >>
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/arts/music/lang-lang-bach-goldberg.html
I liked your idea of focusing the attention of our group on a certain controversial recording, and I am sorry to see how quickly the discussion degenerated into a cacophony of irrelevant nonsense about racism. Lang Lang is a deficient artist for reasons having nothing to do with his or anyone else's ethnic origins. He is quite unmistakably lacking in certain fundamental aspects of musicianship that one expects to hear in a merely competent, not to mention outstanding performance: discipline, consistency and coherence. I think Aristotle has something to say about these qualities in the Poetics, when he describes the artworks generally regarded as well-made. I set out to listen through Lang Lang's rendition of Bach's Goldberg Variations, but could only hold out for a little under twenty minutes. I don't now, and really never have, held the value of my time to be so cheap that I could afford to exchange it for exposure to the work of someone who cannot or will not hold himself to a decision about whether to play in tempo or not, whether to make a voice in a polyphonic composition audible or inaudible, whether to play both hands in unison or not, and so on. If the artist wishes to make these decisions differently at different times, there is nothing wrong in that, provided that these differences have some ascertainable connection with the music, that they impart or reveal some significance in the notes, not merely to reflect the performer's delight in moving his fingers quickly and embellishing where it's least expected, and often least appropriate.
I could go on, but to do so would be to show disrespect for the commitment to the art of music and the interests of the listening public audible in recordings by such artists as Glenn Gould, Andras Schiff...
Concerning Schiff:

https://books.google.com/books?id=8DXnDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT132&dq=%22which+of+your+ecm+recordings+brought+you+your+first+great+success%22&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjWmPqHrtjrAhWPzKQKHVZ4C8cQ6AEwAHoECAAQAg#v=onepage&q=%22which%20of%20your%20ecm%20recordings%20brought%20you%20your%20first%20great%20success%22&f=false
p***@gmail.com
2020-09-05 17:39:58 UTC
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Great post, Oscar. You've posted a perfect opprtunity for all the Virtue Signalers of this group, you know, those who publcaly declare how good they are like present day pharysees, who then accuse the rest of us as racists...........
Alex Brown
2020-09-06 08:58:43 UTC
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Post by Oscar
Other social media does it, why not us? Our first Challenge!
I'm halfway through it.

It's a very good sounding instrument, nicely recorded. The performance
has some very obtrusive rubato at times (I thought LL had omitted to
play the last note of var 15, but after a while *pling* there it was).
Sometimes the music goes dreamy. Sometimes there are some slamming
chords and emphatic punchy bass notes.

So far my take on it is, it's weird. But weird can be okay. If the
recording quality was degraded and some humming was added, and this was
sold as an uneathered Gould recording, it might be hailed as a final
confirmation of his Genius. But since it's Lang Lang it'll just be
called weird.
M. A.
2020-09-06 09:25:56 UTC
Reply
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Post by Alex Brown
Post by Oscar
Other social media does it, why not us? Our first Challenge!
I'm halfway through it.
It's a very good sounding instrument, nicely recorded. The performance
has some very obtrusive rubato at times (I thought LL had omitted to
play the last note of var 15, but after a while *pling* there it was).
Sometimes the music goes dreamy. Sometimes there are some slamming
chords and emphatic punchy bass notes.
So far my take on it is, it's weird. But weird can be okay. If the
recording quality was degraded and some humming was added, and this was
sold as an uneathered Gould recording, it might be hailed as a final
confirmation of his Genius. But since it's Lang Lang it'll just be
called weird.
Thank you, Alex, for your honest impressions and - along with LarryLap - increasing the signal-to-noise-ratio in what appeared to be a promising thread in the beginning.

M.A.
Oscar
2020-09-06 21:23:06 UTC
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Post by Alex Brown
So far my take on it is, it's weird. But weird can be okay. If the
recording quality was degraded and some humming was added, and this was
sold as an uneathered Gould recording, it might be hailed as a final
confirmation of his Genius. But since it's Lang Lang it'll just be
called weird.
Thanks, Alex. I shall follow-up in the coming few days with my own impression. Will listen with open mind. Did you audition studio or live version? And I concur: Weird can be okay. Depends on the perversity and musicality. I find Celi's weirdness mostly musical and willfully perverse in the service of the music and its traditions, whereas Lang is more like KISS on stage minus the Marshall stacks and with a Steinway grand.
Alex Brown
2020-09-07 03:59:52 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by Oscar
Post by Alex Brown
So far my take on it is, it's weird. But weird can be okay. If the
recording quality was degraded and some humming was added, and this was
sold as an uneathered Gould recording, it might be hailed as a final
confirmation of his Genius. But since it's Lang Lang it'll just be
called weird.
Thanks, Alex. I shall follow-up in the coming few days with my own impression. Will listen with open mind. Did you audition studio or live version? And I concur: Weird can be okay. Depends on the perversity and musicality. I find Celi's weirdness mostly musical and willfully perverse in the service of the music and its traditions, whereas Lang is more like KISS on stage minus the Marshall stacks and with a Steinway grand.
I listened via Qobuz, and to whatever was the first "version" in the set
(studio I guess, since there was no audience noise). It was
disconcerting after it finished to hear _another_ aria start, and it had
me scrabbling for the stop button!
g***@gmail.com
2020-09-07 20:54:47 UTC
Reply
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Post by Oscar
Other social media does it, why not us? Our first Challenge! You know, along the lines of ALS ice bucket challenge, #nomakeupselfie, The 7-day gratitude challenge, and so on and so forth. With yesterday's worldwide release of Lang Lang's Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach—on 4 (!), count 'em, CDs, no less*—our time has come to listen to a performance and then report our symptoms herein. Listening to Lang's BWV 988, what feelings did you experience? Did you break out in a rash or smash anything? At what point did you suffer a psychological break from reality? And most importantly, did you secretly enjoy it? (oooh!) No one need buy the CD in order to participate. Just dial up yr streaming service and give it a virtual whirl. Should be...fun?
"This deluxe edition features a unique, world-first offering with simultaneous [sic] studio & live recording." Sooo, made at the _same_ time in studio and on stage? Wow, he _is_ talented. The live recording made at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig; studio one taped at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, March 18, 2020.
*The standard edition presents only the studio version on 2CDs.
https://www.deutschegrammophon.com/en/composers/langlang
https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8796483--j-s-bach-goldberg-variations-bwv988
<< Lang Lang, Piano Thunderer, Greets Bach’s Austere ‘Goldbergs’
For 20 years, the superstar pianist resisted playing this towering work in public. Now he’s releasing not one recording of it, but two.
By Joshua Barone
August 21, 2020
Habits are hard to break. That’s one reason people are still asking “How’s it going?” during a world-upending pandemic. A similarly reflexive “Fine” often follows, which is why it was so jarring when, during a recent interview, the pianist Lang Lang responded with a wince and shouted: “It’s horrible!”
This is a difficult time for everyone in classical music, as in-person performances have all but come to a halt worldwide. Mr. Lang, one of the industry’s biggest stars and moneymakers, is relatively safe from financial devastation. But being sidelined by forces beyond his control is painfully familiar to him. He injured his left arm in 2017, and the recovery put him out of commission for more than a year.
“I’ve had a break already,” Mr. Lang, 38, said over Zoom from his home in Shanghai. “This time, I’m so ready, but I cannot play a concert. That’s much more frustrating.”
Mr. Lang’s return from his injury has been incremental, starting with less muscular fare than the Romantic war horses that made him famous, then building back toward those thunderous concertos — while also weaving in new repertoire. This year was meant to focus on a major project for him: a tour of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and a recording of the work on Deutsche Grammophon, out next month.
He made it three stops into the tour, all in Germany, before the rest was canceled. But before leaving, he made a studio recording of the “Goldbergs” in Berlin and a live one at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked.
Both versions will be on the coming release. That wasn’t always the plan, Mr. Lang said, but he pushed to include the live performance after listening to it and finding that he appreciated its spontaneity and “floating” nature. Still, he added, he prefers the studio recording, which he believes shows more depth.
Few works elicit more varied interpretations than the “Goldbergs.” Performers bring personal touches to repertory staples like concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but on balance those works have a consistent running time and a generally agreed upon sound. But Bach’s set of 30 variations, surrounded by two iterations of an Aria of music-box simplicity, is written with such austerity that it’s something of a blank canvas. There is no rule book for ornamentation; virtually absent tempo markings mean it can last less than an hour or, in the case of Mr. Lang’s reading, more than 90 minutes. It can be heard on harpsichords or modern pianos, or even transcribed for other instruments.
Despite being an audience favorite, Mr. Lang has long left critics scratching their heads over his undeniable skill and his questionable taste, his expressiveness and his pop star mannerisms. And he will yet again divide listeners with his “Goldbergs.” Baroque specialists in particular may bristle at his occasionally counterintuitive voicing, with unconventional emphasis on particular notes and phrases, and his rubato — rhythmic manipulation that sometimes pushes the meter toward unrecognizability. The slow 25th variation, which typically lasts six or seven minutes, is here stretched beyond 10; Mr. Lang’s studio version of the closing Aria is nearly six and a half minutes long, while most pianists stay shy of four.
But regardless what people think about Mr. Lang’s interpretation, they cannot write it off as unconsidered. It’s deeply felt and two decades in the making.
Like all piano students, Mr. Lang played a lot of Bach as a child, from the easy minuets to the encyclopedic “Well-Tempered Clavier.” He used fast sections of the “Goldbergs” for exercises, but didn’t perform the work in its entirety until, after coming to stardom as a substitute at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 1999, he recounted it from memory in the middle of the night for some fellow musicians.
Mr. Lang said he didn’t want to publicly share his “Goldbergs” until the moment felt right. In his mid-20s, he played the work for the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt during an informal audition for the Salzburg Festival. He recalled Harnoncourt saying, “You play Bach with no imagination,” urging him to play with fewer reservations and more lyrical melodic lines.
“He started singing the theme of Variation 3, and I was like, wow, can Bach be played this Romantic?” Mr. Lang said. “I was quite overwhelmed by his emotions.”
Mr. Lang has since sought advice from other artists, including the German pianist and harpsichordist Andreas Staier, who taught him the importance of approaching the “Goldbergs” with scholarly rigor. Learning the piece, Mr. Lang said, has improved his understanding of composition, and of music itself.
“It takes you to another level of thinking,” he said.
With his copy of the score in hand, Mr. Lang discussed what he has learned about the “Goldbergs,” and how he arrived at his interpretation. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Your career was made with Romantic concertos, but lately you’ve worked backward in time, now to the Baroque. Does this style come naturally to you?
It does, but I’ve played it much less than the Romantic or Classical repertoire. And Bach is another planet. When I met Andreas [Staier], he told me this piece needs to have a real knowledge behind the strategy. You cannot think about this as a 10-minute or a 30-minute piece or concerto. You have to hold your cards in your hands and not throw your cards at the same time. He said I had to learn each variation with a kind of calm temperament, and not get overheated on Variation 1.
What has guided your interpretation?
This is an entire piece, but at the same time it’s separate pieces. In that way, each of the variations has to have a calculated way of playing. You cannot play everything the same way.
I feel like you’re most personal in the rubato and ornamentation. Those can be difficult to balance, and Baroque rules can be very particular. How did you find what works for you?
With rubato, it’s the theory of the roots of the tree and the leaves going up. In this case, the left hand is not always the roots in Bach’s music. In the Aria it is, but in other variations, maybe it’s the middle voice. But you always need to find where the roots are, and those need to be steady. Then the melodic line can be a little different. I realized doing some of my studio recording, sometimes I gave a lot of rubato and had to come back, because then it can fall apart very easily. You can hear that you’re losing the pulse.
You play as little ornamentation as possible the first time through. [Each section of the “Goldbergs” is divided into two parts that are both repeated.] Then on the repeat you can do ornamentation to give it a little bit of improvisational style. If it sounds like everything is planned, the ornamentation loses its real meaning. Sometimes, you can even add a few chords here and there to make it a little more colorful. In the French overture, Variation 16, I try to make it more like an organ piece, so I add a little more lower voice. But we have to be careful to not have strange ornamentation that sounds like Messiaen or something. Some of my ornamentation was corrected by Baroque musicians.
Let’s talk about some specific sections. The Aria is a perfect example of how the “Goldbergs” can be played any number of ways.
I intended to play slightly slower than other musicians, especially in the studio. It gives me a quietness, slightly more space. But obviously it needs to be legato. If I can really connect each note, then I can play slower because it gives me a grounded feeling.
And Variation 7, the gigue, is a place where you seem to really loosen up.
For the repeat, I played the chords, the sixth and the third, under the main voice. This is what I learned from the Baroque way of playing. They often add lower sixth and lower third to make it like a bell sound. It’s more notes, but actually a lighter feel. This is the character of the piece. It needs to bubble.
The 26th variation seems like one of the trickiest. You have to decide whether to emphasize those effervescent runs or the dancing melody.
I was always playing this as an exercise as a kid. This is maybe the most difficult variation, technically. You can actually play around with it each time, with a different priority — sometimes more on the left hand, or more on the right hand. But if you do that, you’d better stay with your choice two bars, or four. Don’t switch too fast.
For an open-ended section like this, do you consult with older recordings or artists?
Especially on this one, I got a huge inspiration from Glenn Gould. He is someone who is not afraid to play fast passages really fast. I think that’s why people like his “Goldberg” Variations. It has such an inspired character. He gave me the confidence that some parts can be very exciting; you can just let it go.
What does the return of the Aria at the end mean for you?
Variation 30 is the most important connection for me. It’s a combination of three popular songs, German folk songs. I copied the lyrics, and the third is about home. This created a great transition to the Aria. And without this variation I think the Aria would be so much harder to play, after those fireworks: After the Adagio, Variation 25, you have four variations that are fast and virtuosic. It’s just impossible to get back to the Aria. But when you have this family reunion song in the 30th, you suddenly realize that you are getting older.
The truth is, we don’t need to think too much to play the Aria this second time. It’s already different, automatically, no matter what you do. After certain things, you’re changed. You don’t need to say it; you just are.
—Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. https://twitter.com/joshbarone >>
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/arts/music/lang-lang-bach-goldberg.html
https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.music.classical/vDgWjYthFWg
g***@gmail.com
2020-09-09 14:58:54 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by Oscar
Other social media does it, why not us? Our first Challenge! You know, along the lines of ALS ice bucket challenge, #nomakeupselfie, The 7-day gratitude challenge, and so on and so forth. With yesterday's worldwide release of Lang Lang's Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach—on 4 (!), count 'em, CDs, no less*—our time has come to listen to a performance and then report our symptoms herein. Listening to Lang's BWV 988, what feelings did you experience? Did you break out in a rash or smash anything? At what point did you suffer a psychological break from reality? And most importantly, did you secretly enjoy it? (oooh!) No one need buy the CD in order to participate. Just dial up yr streaming service and give it a virtual whirl. Should be...fun?
"This deluxe edition features a unique, world-first offering with simultaneous [sic] studio & live recording." Sooo, made at the _same_ time in studio and on stage? Wow, he _is_ talented. The live recording made at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig; studio one taped at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, March 18, 2020.
*The standard edition presents only the studio version on 2CDs.
https://www.deutschegrammophon.com/en/composers/langlang
https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8796483--j-s-bach-goldberg-variations-bwv988
<< Lang Lang, Piano Thunderer, Greets Bach’s Austere ‘Goldbergs’
For 20 years, the superstar pianist resisted playing this towering work in public. Now he’s releasing not one recording of it, but two.
By Joshua Barone
August 21, 2020
Habits are hard to break. That’s one reason people are still asking “How’s it going?” during a world-upending pandemic. A similarly reflexive “Fine” often follows, which is why it was so jarring when, during a recent interview, the pianist Lang Lang responded with a wince and shouted: “It’s horrible!”
This is a difficult time for everyone in classical music, as in-person performances have all but come to a halt worldwide. Mr. Lang, one of the industry’s biggest stars and moneymakers, is relatively safe from financial devastation. But being sidelined by forces beyond his control is painfully familiar to him. He injured his left arm in 2017, and the recovery put him out of commission for more than a year.
“I’ve had a break already,” Mr. Lang, 38, said over Zoom from his home in Shanghai. “This time, I’m so ready, but I cannot play a concert. That’s much more frustrating.”
Mr. Lang’s return from his injury has been incremental, starting with less muscular fare than the Romantic war horses that made him famous, then building back toward those thunderous concertos — while also weaving in new repertoire. This year was meant to focus on a major project for him: a tour of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations and a recording of the work on Deutsche Grammophon, out next month.
He made it three stops into the tour, all in Germany, before the rest was canceled. But before leaving, he made a studio recording of the “Goldbergs” in Berlin and a live one at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked.
Both versions will be on the coming release. That wasn’t always the plan, Mr. Lang said, but he pushed to include the live performance after listening to it and finding that he appreciated its spontaneity and “floating” nature. Still, he added, he prefers the studio recording, which he believes shows more depth.
Few works elicit more varied interpretations than the “Goldbergs.” Performers bring personal touches to repertory staples like concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but on balance those works have a consistent running time and a generally agreed upon sound. But Bach’s set of 30 variations, surrounded by two iterations of an Aria of music-box simplicity, is written with such austerity that it’s something of a blank canvas. There is no rule book for ornamentation; virtually absent tempo markings mean it can last less than an hour or, in the case of Mr. Lang’s reading, more than 90 minutes. It can be heard on harpsichords or modern pianos, or even transcribed for other instruments.
Despite being an audience favorite, Mr. Lang has long left critics scratching their heads over his undeniable skill and his questionable taste, his expressiveness and his pop star mannerisms. And he will yet again divide listeners with his “Goldbergs.” Baroque specialists in particular may bristle at his occasionally counterintuitive voicing, with unconventional emphasis on particular notes and phrases, and his rubato — rhythmic manipulation that sometimes pushes the meter toward unrecognizability. The slow 25th variation, which typically lasts six or seven minutes, is here stretched beyond 10; Mr. Lang’s studio version of the closing Aria is nearly six and a half minutes long, while most pianists stay shy of four.
But regardless what people think about Mr. Lang’s interpretation, they cannot write it off as unconsidered. It’s deeply felt and two decades in the making.
Like all piano students, Mr. Lang played a lot of Bach as a child, from the easy minuets to the encyclopedic “Well-Tempered Clavier.” He used fast sections of the “Goldbergs” for exercises, but didn’t perform the work in its entirety until, after coming to stardom as a substitute at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago in 1999, he recounted it from memory in the middle of the night for some fellow musicians.
Mr. Lang said he didn’t want to publicly share his “Goldbergs” until the moment felt right. In his mid-20s, he played the work for the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt during an informal audition for the Salzburg Festival. He recalled Harnoncourt saying, “You play Bach with no imagination,” urging him to play with fewer reservations and more lyrical melodic lines.
“He started singing the theme of Variation 3, and I was like, wow, can Bach be played this Romantic?” Mr. Lang said. “I was quite overwhelmed by his emotions.”
Mr. Lang has since sought advice from other artists, including the German pianist and harpsichordist Andreas Staier, who taught him the importance of approaching the “Goldbergs” with scholarly rigor. Learning the piece, Mr. Lang said, has improved his understanding of composition, and of music itself.
“It takes you to another level of thinking,” he said.
With his copy of the score in hand, Mr. Lang discussed what he has learned about the “Goldbergs,” and how he arrived at his interpretation. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Your career was made with Romantic concertos, but lately you’ve worked backward in time, now to the Baroque. Does this style come naturally to you?
It does, but I’ve played it much less than the Romantic or Classical repertoire. And Bach is another planet. When I met Andreas [Staier], he told me this piece needs to have a real knowledge behind the strategy. You cannot think about this as a 10-minute or a 30-minute piece or concerto. You have to hold your cards in your hands and not throw your cards at the same time. He said I had to learn each variation with a kind of calm temperament, and not get overheated on Variation 1.
What has guided your interpretation?
This is an entire piece, but at the same time it’s separate pieces. In that way, each of the variations has to have a calculated way of playing. You cannot play everything the same way.
I feel like you’re most personal in the rubato and ornamentation. Those can be difficult to balance, and Baroque rules can be very particular. How did you find what works for you?
With rubato, it’s the theory of the roots of the tree and the leaves going up. In this case, the left hand is not always the roots in Bach’s music. In the Aria it is, but in other variations, maybe it’s the middle voice. But you always need to find where the roots are, and those need to be steady. Then the melodic line can be a little different. I realized doing some of my studio recording, sometimes I gave a lot of rubato and had to come back, because then it can fall apart very easily. You can hear that you’re losing the pulse.
You play as little ornamentation as possible the first time through. [Each section of the “Goldbergs” is divided into two parts that are both repeated.] Then on the repeat you can do ornamentation to give it a little bit of improvisational style. If it sounds like everything is planned, the ornamentation loses its real meaning. Sometimes, you can even add a few chords here and there to make it a little more colorful. In the French overture, Variation 16, I try to make it more like an organ piece, so I add a little more lower voice. But we have to be careful to not have strange ornamentation that sounds like Messiaen or something. Some of my ornamentation was corrected by Baroque musicians.
Let’s talk about some specific sections. The Aria is a perfect example of how the “Goldbergs” can be played any number of ways.
I intended to play slightly slower than other musicians, especially in the studio. It gives me a quietness, slightly more space. But obviously it needs to be legato. If I can really connect each note, then I can play slower because it gives me a grounded feeling.
And Variation 7, the gigue, is a place where you seem to really loosen up.
For the repeat, I played the chords, the sixth and the third, under the main voice. This is what I learned from the Baroque way of playing. They often add lower sixth and lower third to make it like a bell sound. It’s more notes, but actually a lighter feel. This is the character of the piece. It needs to bubble.
The 26th variation seems like one of the trickiest. You have to decide whether to emphasize those effervescent runs or the dancing melody.
I was always playing this as an exercise as a kid. This is maybe the most difficult variation, technically. You can actually play around with it each time, with a different priority — sometimes more on the left hand, or more on the right hand. But if you do that, you’d better stay with your choice two bars, or four. Don’t switch too fast.
For an open-ended section like this, do you consult with older recordings or artists?
Especially on this one, I got a huge inspiration from Glenn Gould. He is someone who is not afraid to play fast passages really fast. I think that’s why people like his “Goldberg” Variations. It has such an inspired character. He gave me the confidence that some parts can be very exciting; you can just let it go.
What does the return of the Aria at the end mean for you?
Variation 30 is the most important connection for me. It’s a combination of three popular songs, German folk songs. I copied the lyrics, and the third is about home. This created a great transition to the Aria. And without this variation I think the Aria would be so much harder to play, after those fireworks: After the Adagio, Variation 25, you have four variations that are fast and virtuosic. It’s just impossible to get back to the Aria. But when you have this family reunion song in the 30th, you suddenly realize that you are getting older.
The truth is, we don’t need to think too much to play the Aria this second time. It’s already different, automatically, no matter what you do. After certain things, you’re changed. You don’t need to say it; you just are.
—Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. https://twitter.com/joshbarone >>
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/21/arts/music/lang-lang-bach-goldberg.html
https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.music.classical/vDgWjYthFWg
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