Lang Lang—The Classical Music Superstar Critics Love to Hate Hate Delivers his "Goldberg Variations"

Lang Lang, a certified classical music "superstar" much loved by audiences for his performances of the romantic repertoire and detested by the cognoscenti and critics for being overly dramatic and self-indulgent, waited until age 38 to release a fully realized recording of Bach's mathematically certified "Goldberg Variations"—a piece definitely at odds with his romantic "sweet spot" and one he says he mastered—at least technically—20 years ago, though he performed it for a teacher at age 17 from memory.

He no doubt knew the critics would pounce given his predilection for drama, and they did but he recorded and released it anyway in two versions, one performed live before an audience at the St. Thomas church in Leipzig, Germany where Bach toiled for his final 27 years, and one in Berlin's Emil Berliner studios. Deutsche Grammophon released it as a 4 CD deluxe set containing both live and studio versions and as a double LP of just the live "one take" performance. Though it was written for harpsichord, most modern recordings are performed on the piano. The CD set includes photos of Lang Lang his critics will say show him "mugging" for the camera though classical music artists and conductors have been doing this throughout the history of recorded classical music. A few picture him gesticulating, eyes closed, in front of stereo system that includes a Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape recorder, a high quality turntable I can't identify and a vacuum tube amplifier, though inexplicably, that photo was omitted from the LP set.

Glenn Gould's rapid fire 1955 performance is considered by many to be the best on record, but of course critics and fans have a wide range of favorites, including some who prefer Keith Jarrett's performed on harpsichord. You are not reading a review written by a classical music expert capable of dissecting and comparing what Lang Lang has produced here to the others, though I own and enjoy listening to a number of other performances including both of Gould's. I admit to not analyzing and dissecting. You can search online and read the many scathing critiques of this release including one from The New York Times's classical music critic Anthony Tommasini titled “Lang Lang: The Pianist Who Plays Too Muchly”, who like most of the others, faints with damn praise Lang Lang's talent ("...for all his playing’s uncanny virtuosity, wondrous control of shadings and sound and unbridled urgency — I and many others have long found Mr. Lang’s performances overindulgently expressive and marred by exaggerated interpretive touches".). Having established that groundwork, Tommasini digs into Lang Lang's studio performance, concluding that "for all the soft-spoken beauty of his performance, it comes across as fussy and affected". I'm surprised he didn't criticize the pianist for not having candelabras on the piano and a brother named George playing the violin. I too can be bitchy! And while I'm at it, let me criticize Mr. Tommasini for this: though he often writes in great detail about concert hall sound—places that 95% of readers have never and will never visit, when he reviews recordings he never mentions sound quality! How "muchly" fucked up is that? Pardon my language (or don't).

However, Mr. Tommasini does a great service in his review, which you should read, by embedding excerpts from Lang Lang's performance and that of two others, Jeremy Denk and Beatrice Rana. You can listen and judge for yourself to what degree Lang Lang's interpretation is deserving of such derision! Other reviews are equally dismissive and use the same technique: admit to great talent and abilities and then attack the ripe target.

Writing as a "non-combatant" in this war and as a more casual classical music lover, and without comparing this performance (or these performances) to any others, I can confidently write that I listened numerous times to these performances streamed, on CD and the live version on the double vinyl LP. That's a lot of listening and a great deal of enjoyment.

Somehow as a casual observer I didn't notice that Lang Lang "yanked around" the music and made it sound "labored" or that his constant use of "...cresendos that swell and subside, like a squeeze box" make the performance sound "fussy". Ignorance is bliss because as I sat listening I marveled at the musician's dexterity as his fingers flew across the keyboard and it certainly wasn't boring or "over the top" self-indulgent. Instead, it was Lang Lang’s (Mr. Lang’s?) interpretation for his 21st century adoring fanbase. What can be wrong with that other his popularity, which must gall some? Yes, even I noticed a more "ripe" posture to some of it compared to more staid performances, but so what?

Being an audio enthusiast too, I'll give you my sonic experiences, which I found fascinating and for some of you will simply sound self-fulfilling. The 44.1/16 bit CD version was, well “CD”— where the edges were too bright, where the piano’s “woody” quality was lost and where the reverberant space was co-mingled with the instrument’s reverberant character. I didn’t enjoy listening to the CD (no great surprise).

The TIDAL MQA streamed 96/24 version was like another recording altogether. The piano sounded more like a piano made of wood. The church space on the live performance was well-separated from the instrument and it was overall far more coherent and satisfying. I don’t understand those who are MQA resistant especially those who view it as a “plot” to control their recorded musical existence.

And, not surprising (to me at least), the extremely well mastered and flawlessly pressed vinyl record sounded very much like the MQA 96/24 stream. While Lang Lang himself expressed a preference for the studio version, in part probably because it is more technically perfect, the live version has greater excitement and immediacy and the church space enhances the listening experience by putting you in that space in the audience. The vinyl version is the studio recording not the live one.

If it takes Lang Lang to get some of his fans to move from romance to the more subtle and less grand but more satisfying over the long haul “Goldberg Variations”, where’s the harm in playing a bit “muchly”?

COMMENTS
xtcfan80's picture

Mr. Tommasini can be justly accused of reviewing live performances and recordings in a "muchly" affected manner...My 20 cents worth...

Carlos GP's picture

Dear Mr. Fremer. I think there is a mistake. The vinyl version of the Godberg Variations performed by Lang Lang are from the studio session. At least in Europe that is clear https://shop.decca.com/*/*/Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Goldberg-Variations/6LI.... a greeting

Michael Fremer's picture
I did not make that clear....I went from talking about the live version to the vinyl and didn't specify. Sorry...
anomaly7's picture

“A high quality turntable I can't identify“!!! I didn’t think such a thing existed.
Michael, you must have Qobuz and Tidal. Do you prefer the Tidal MQA over the straight hi-rez from Qobuz?

Michael Fremer's picture
There must be other variables at play since non MQA hi-res files sound different on the two streaming services and not uniformly better on one or the other, but generally speaking I do prefer the MQA decoded files.
PeterPani's picture

I love Jarrett's recording on the harpsichord. That I would rate 11/8 on vinyl (recorded digitally, I guess - since it is ECM in 1989). I own some Lang Lang and I have seen him live, too. I am afraid, I agree with Mr. Tommasini. Lang Lang is always going for the show and misses the soul of the music. But (since it is rated 10/10 on analogplanet now) I will buy the double-vinyl and give it a chance. At least, I can put the blame on MF now :-)

Jim Tavegia's picture

It is clear that if many think the 1955 recording is "the definitive" one, they need to get over it as Gould even rethought the piece in is 1980's re-recording. the playing and the sound are totally different. I own both on CD and LP. I have a number of GBV recordings and I enjoy them all and expect them to be interpreted differently, every performance by any one is a "snowflake" as no two will ever be exactly alike. Who could even expect that from such a complicated piece?

Who knows, if Gould have lived a lot longer he may have even recorded it again? We would all be appreciating that as well. I am also glad that piano technology has improved greatly as hearing this well performed on a Steinway D is much preferred over a Harpsicord.

I hope many of you had the chance to watch the PBS Specials of Now Hear This with Scott Yoo, and the Bach episode in particular. All of the episodes in both series are an education in themselves.

volvic's picture

As Lang Lang's performances have always left me cold. It is heresy to say this as a transplanted Canadian but I never thought Gould's Goldbergs was the best recording of the Goldbergs. I did think his first attempt was better than his last. To me, Perahia and Hewitt are the ones to have but always open to hearing this great work performed by others. Thanks for sharing.

xtcfan80's picture

Yes Jim...Here in Colorado Springs we have been lucky to have Scott Yoo here leading the Colorado College Summer Music Festival for over 15 years. Scott is a complete musician /educator /mentor /violinist who is as inspiring a person as any I ever encountered. Both seasons of Now Hear This can be purchased on DVD and streamed. The production values,sound and musical and cultural background presented in each show is fantastic...Music lovers will watch these videos over and over. May even convert ML into a classical music fan, they are that good.

Jim Tavegia's picture

We have had a chance to message back and forth a few times in discussion about violins and his very hectic schedule. I have watched all of the first two seasons numerous times and learn something new each time. It is nice to see him and his wife traveling and performing together as well.

That MBL audio system in the Mozart episode was something else as well. 4,000 LPs? wow! I will order season two on DVD in Dec when it is out and glad there is going to be a season 3 next year as well.

Hopefully the pandemic decrease will allow some concerts in the near future as I miss going to Emory University here for their concerts.

I ordered my CD of Lang Lang over a week and a half ago and it may be here tomorrow. Shipping has gotten very slow as of late.

Regards, Jim

xtcfan80's picture

And agreed...Any musician is entitled to interpret the GBV or any other piece with any personal take they wish. Music is a living, evolving art form.

Analog Scott's picture

Some reasons are superficial IMO. His mugging and other antics rub a lot of people in the wrong way. But it is fair to point out that a lot of his playing would come under fire regardless of his antics. I can understand how "casual music lovers" might not fully appreciate some of the criticism Lang Lang gets for his interpretation of Bach. But that criticism is far from baseless and does not come from a place of pure entitlement or snobbery. Yes, all classical music is open to interpretation and there is nothing wrong with liking this recording. But the critics who are roasting Lang Lang for this recording have legitimate points here. The criticism is not baseless. Not even close.

Telekom's picture

Hi everyone,
Long time lurker, first time poster. Thank you Michael for this review, and also Jim Tavegia for his comments. I am not a great expert on classical or baroque music, but the Goldberg Variations have bewitched me since I first bought a cassette (remember them?) of Glenn Gould’s 1982 recording when I was 19 or 20. I’m now 52. I can still recall the entire recording, because I listened to it incessantly during my fine art studies in Glasgow and Belfast, using the crappiest mono portable tape player you can imagine. It was in my head all day for years. To say I love it would barely describe how I feel about this music, and in particular this recording.

I was lucky enough to find an LP of Gould’s 1950’s (55?) recording. Also great, but very different to his later version. A friend gave me a double LP of my beloved Keith Jarrett playing Goldberg Variations on Harpsichord (mentioned above by Peterpani), which I still feel is a little restrained. But GBV teaches you something every time you listen, and everyone who plays it, whether you like their playing or not, brings something new and instructive. There can’t really be a definitive version, can there? Even though critics try to assert one or another recording as definitive. Even the ones I don’t much like are suggestive and evocative of new dimensions of Bach’s achievement, a pinnacle of achievement on top of a life of utter genius.

I admit I was excited to hear Lang Lang’s recordings. I am not a huge fan but I respect his technical brilliance. I really enjoyed hearing what he brought to the recordings. In fact I really enjoyed hearing such a different rendering, even though some rubato work perplexed me. I preferred the live recording. It seemed freighted with so much tension and expectation, but it was a privilege to be able to experience a really grainy, ‘live’ feel to such a momentous musical occasion, especially as none of us have been to a concert for six months. :)

I listened on Tidal and I was impressed by the presentation. However, I would love to hear what others think of the studio recording, specifically, how the recording was made rather than Lang Lang’s playing. I found there was an uncomfortable level of ‘mechanism’ in the studio takes. In particular, I could hear almost every pedal motion as a rumbling bass, and it was pretty distracting. Gould famously included every moan, sigh, mutter and thump in his 82 recording; but I did not think the Lang Lang studio take had this artefact included for aesthetic or emotional reasons - it just sounds distracting and unwelcome. Anybody else pick that up?

Haters gonna hate, but Lang Lang is an exceptional musician. Not everyone will like his version of GBV, but everyone should listen to it, if only to find out what another great artist can make of this extraordinary composition.

On another slight side topic, how did you folks find the vinyl pressings? I ask because I got some other vinyl from Deutsche Grammophon recently with very obvious non-fill distortion (Roger & Brian Eno). They kinda said meh and gave me back half the price. But I wanted a decent pressing at full price!

I love reading both Michael and Malachi’s views on Analog Planet. I promise to behave here in the comments section. :)

Best wishes to you all, stay safe
Mark

Michael Fremer's picture
You are a wonderful, expressive writer with a strong point of view. Want to contribute to the site? You'll get paid. I find Optimal pressings generally very good. My copy of this as well as of the Roger and Brian Eno album flawless (and that's not hyperbole). Of course even the best sometimes press a bad record or five....
Telekom's picture

Michael, how should I make contact with you? If you can see my email address in the accounts do drop me a line.
Mark

Telekom's picture

Yes! I would love to. :)

Andy1974's picture

I would love to hear more thoughts on recent DG pressings.

I think they put out some great music, but I feel Tidal might be better in vinyl in respect of their modern output. I have bought 3 albums over the last few years that are basically unlistenable due to noise, that cleaning will just not fix.

I did recently buy the Max Richter box, Voyager, that sounds quite good. I'm in a quandary, as I want more Max Richter & more DG, but still don't feel I can trust their vinyl quality control.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Got a bit obsessive over the Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations. In addition to the two studio recordings there are some "live" performances that aren't as well recorded or performed. There's an interesting shift in the sound of Glenn Gould as he became more of a hermit and obsessive in the control of his recorded sound. I owned a promotional copy of the original 1955 LP on Columbia. Later recordings by Gould were on a piano he had customized by cutting away some of the wood in the action, making the piano's "touch" extraordinarily quick and detached sounding. I suppose that the intention was to make his Steinway closer in sound to a harpsichord. That first LP of the "Gouldbergs" sounds significantly different in its initial LP presentation than in the remasterings. There's been a ton of different remasterings, including a British re-pressing on an unauthorized label derived from a CD. The piano sound on the original is fuller and "fatter" than later masterings, and the sound of those later remasterings is closer to the later recordings of Gould.

I suspect that Bach didn't intend to have the variations as they are now, usually on piano and usually played in sequence, in its entirety with full repeats. Haven't heard the Lang Lang yet, but have heard plenty of other recordings. My favorite harpsichord version is Leonhardt's final recording for DHM, but there's lots of good recordings. One I'd recommend dodging is Simone Dinnerstein's, too slow and loved to death. Perahia is as fine as any. Gould's studio recordings are formidable.

Telekom's picture

This is really useful insight Robin, especially the piano alterations. I became a bit obsessed with Gould myself. The film “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould” is fascinating. On another note, I am revisiting my 1955 copy of Gould’s recording. While I still find the music fascinating and volcanic, the sound quality is also a bit volcanic. Like listening to your car radio during a hailstorm. While eating popcorn. From a pressing made on sandpaper by Tornado Pressings, Death Valley.

Intermediate Listener's picture

My favorite is Perahia, terrific performance and gorgeous sound from the short-lived Sony SACD era. Knowledgeable classical critics who also know sound are thin on the ground. Jed Distler for sure. Who am I forgetting?

Jim Tavegia's picture

All of Mr. Perahia's performances are excellent. His GBV is superb. His CD total timing is 73:29. I did not feel his playing was rushed at all.

Analog Scott's picture

pretty much my favorite

Jim Tavegia's picture

I will try and be brief. I really like this interpretation and I wish it fit on just 1 CD so as to not have to break up the performance to change the discs. It is OK, though. Even without the last track it still would have totaled over 81 minutes and no other performance of the GBV takes two discs. The slightly longer spacing between tracks may account for some of it.

I felt a couple of things about this recording none of which have me offering any negative comments about the performance. It is in my "pedestrian" opinion excellent. Lang Lang may have chosen a slower pace to his liking.

This Steinway (Hamburg?) sounds a little warmer or it may be a combination of the mics and mic preamps that make it seem this way to me. It is not unlikable, just warmer and fuller.

I also felt that the hall was slightly more reverberant with long tails that seems to last 4-5 seconds. Of course this means that the next notes are running into the fades of the previous notes, and the louder the playing the more noticeable it is. Again, not objectionable, just an observation. The quiet passages were beautiful.

I also had a sense that I was more aware of the left hand in Lang Lang's performance of the GBV than I had noticed in others in the past. It made me think about both clefs of this performance more than I had remembered of others. It is not a negative thing to me, just a variation of the Variations.

Still a winning performance IMHO and one I will listen to over and over I am sure. I will also pick up some other recommendations of the GBV performances of other artists mentioned in this thread. I'm sure I will like them as well.

Telekom's picture

Great to hear your views on this Jim. I agree that Lang Lang is pre-judged as a superstar artist, and this is a really worthwhile recording. The greater overall length of the Variations as recorded by Lang Lang, as compared to both of Gould’s well-known recordings, is down to the fact that Lang Lang observed the “repeats” on each variation, which Gould left out.
Mark

Jim Tavegia's picture

I'm sure you enjoyed as much as I did the Bach riddle/mystery score from his portrait that Scott Yoo and his wife, Alice K. Dade: a world class flute player, had to uncover...and they did in the Bach episode of Now Hear This.

I should add that the liner notes of the Lang Lang GBV were an added treat. Great performance.

robert r dawson's picture

this marriage of Gould, Bach and Guided By Voices come about?

PeterPani's picture

and listened to his Live Goldberg. Over-affected. Lang Lang gives no room for my own head cinema like other interpreters. After that I played Jarrett (sticks with - I counted them today - 18 other Goldberg records in my shelf). I am still with him. His "mechanical" playing like a clock, restricted, but you can feel the energy and volcano behind his playing. The opposite to Lang Lang.

Jim Tavegia's picture

I feel that her playing is magnificent and the recording a 10 out of 10. The room has just the right amount of natural, room reverb. I am guessing another Hamburg Steinway and no mention of the recording hall or the piano technician, things that I am oddly interested in.

I was not familiar with her before, so I will have to pick up more of her playing. Thanks for the recommendation.

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