Has musicianship gone the way of twitter, instant messaging, sound bites? In this day and age, is an audience’s attention held by a performance punctuated with exaggerated emotionalism? In a scathing review of pianist Lang Lang’s August 30 performance of Chopin’s F minor piano concerto with the Dresden Staatskapelle in Lucerne, Michael Kimmelman suggests Mr. Lang’s playing has everything to do with our high-speed information age mind-set.
It brought to mind what Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post columnist, wrote about interpreting history these days. Writing for The New Republic, she reviewed a book by Nicholson Baker, “Human Smoke,” about the lead-up to World War II, which stitched together, without comment, hundreds of nuggets culled from newspapers, memoirs and other (often secondary) sources to suggest a case for pacifism.
“A series of pretentious, Gawker-like vignettes,” Ms. Applebaum called these orchestrated tidbits. “Ripped from their respective contexts each item has the same weight as the next. There is no hierarchy, no sense that one enigmatic anecdote might be more important than the next equally enigmatic anecdote.”
That’s not a bad description of what Mr. Lang did with the Chopin concerto. What Ms. Applebaum added is also true about music: “There are many legitimate ways to write history, even many avant-garde, nonlinear, novelistic ways to write history, as the historiography of World War II itself well illustrates.” But history persuasively told, like music interpreted, comes down to cogent arguments. The pianist Glenn Gould was an eccentric interpreter, but his interpretations, whether you liked them or not, had their own internal, neurotic logic. They made an elaborate case for themselves. The same could be said about playing by Vladimir Horowitz or Sviatoslav Richter.
Flashy passages strung together don’t make an argument. They make an assortment of fetishes. “Perhaps,” Ms. Applebaum wondered at one point about “Human Smoke,” “the whole book is a gigantic practical joke, a stunt intended to provoke.” I wondered the same thing during the concerto.
Read the review in the New York Times here.