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April 9, 2004

Pair of prodigious pianists are a study in brilliant contrasts at Symphony Hall

In Chicago, this spring is the season of the great pianists. In the next six weeks, Alfred Brendel, András Schiff, Krystian Zimerman, Mitsuko Uchida, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard will all offer the latest results of their musical research, and just now, we had the chance to see two of today's most promising young pianists at Symphony Hall. Already, both are highly acclaimed: the 35-year-old Piotr Anderszewski is the recipient of the Gilmore Award, the most prestigious award for talented pianists; and Lang Lang, even younger at 22, is "the future of classical music," or so we are told by his record company (a recent scathing critique in the New York Times notwithstanding). Neither pianist is a stranger to Chicago. Lang has repeatedly won the hearts of Chicago audiences, most recently last October. Anderszewski, on the other hand, gave his debut at Mandel Hall in the fall of 2001, and has returned for his third Chicago recital.

Despite these commonalities, it would be all-too-tempting to cast Lang and Anderszewski as musical antipodes. Anderszewski, one wants to say, is the serious artist, suggesting a contrast to Lang Lang, the virtuoso. And other oppositions come to mind: the seeker of profundities vs. the charmer, classicism vs. romanticism, discipline vs. exuberance, and ultimately, objectivity vs. subjectivity. One is in the tradition of a Brendel or an Arrau, and the other aligned with the great virtuosos of the past—Horowitz, Cherkassky, and all the others. But these simple antitheses cannot capture what is, especially in the case of Anderszewski, a highly multifaceted musical personality. (And surprisingly enough, Anderszewski, the proto-Prada model, is the better-groomed and better-looking of the two, while it was Lang—with his innocent, childlike, asexual appearance—who had the ladies groan in delight as he sat down for yet another encore.)

What strikes one about Anderszewski is how comfortable he is onstage, especially when left alone with the music of Bach, which he returns to time and again. Without the need to play himself into the foreground, he simply appears at home, his unpretentious manners almost casting him in the role of his own spectator. Serenely nodding along to the rhythms he creates, he creates an air of intimacy without effort. But this intimacy does not take away from clear thinking: Anderszewski's Bach is a delight, every line well-considered and sharply articulated, with dynamic contrasts clearly presented and ornaments tastefully applied. This is no mean feat in a work as inhospitable to the piano as the French Overture, one of Bach's longest keyboard works. Like the famous Italian Concerto, it is written specifically with the harpsichord in mind and makes splendid use of that old instrument's many unique effects. It can easily seem out of place on the modern concert grand, but not so with Anderszewski, who proved a skillful translator. Even though (or perhaps precisely because) he at times dared to apply a light and witty touch, the music retained its grace and nobility and flowed with a rare beauty.

In the second half of the concert, Anderszewski took his audience onto more homely terrain, with music by his countrymen Karol Szymanowski and Frédéric Chopin. In Szymanowski's Metopes—three musical portraits of scenes from the Odyssey—the clarity of touch he has achieved with his longstanding engagement with Bach paid off, yielding pointedly chiseled musical characters in this late Romantic, almost- Impressionist repertoire. Crowning the afternoon, Chopin's majestic Piano Sonata No 3 was rendered with all the subtlety and restraint that characterized Anderszewski's other offerings.

A week later, Lang Lang's recital—his Chicago solo debut—wasn't as successful. This was unfortunate, given his abundant talents and rich musical potential. Nor were they absent: all of Lang's mastery was there, right at the beginning, as he delved into the theme of Schumann's early Abegg Variations. If Anderszewski's tone often has a crystalline, glassy, "objective" quality to it, Lang seeks to trace every line in a personal manner, traveling everywhere in his search for maximum espressivo playing. It was touching and impressive at once to hear how much he could tease out of Schumann's simple theme. Then, however, his virtuosity overcame him, and much of the remainder of the innocent piece was buried under grimacing staccato witticisms. These were much more appropriate in the Haydn sonata that followed, where Lang shaped the slow movement beautifully and intimately.

Schubert's Wandererfantasie, the most musically significant work on the program, was also the most disappointing. Lang Lang simply seemed unsure about how to bring together Schubert's famous songfulness and melancholy with the piece's frequent demand for rock-hard chords and driving, unrelenting virtuosic rage. Usually, he excels at either quality, and some moments—especially in the slow second part—were extremely well done. For the most part, however, he was too shy and restrained in the dark passages, converting the demonic into a mere finger-exercise, and again not serious enough in the melodic sections (at the worst, turning flowing song into bland jocularity). In a piece already so episodic, a strong interpreter is needed to tie the parts together. Under Lang's hands, the parts toppled the whole.

Too bad Lang chose to change his program at the last minute. I had been looking forward to the announced performance of Liszt's Don Juan Fantasy, a highly imaginative and virtuosic meditation on favorite lines from Mozart's opera. This is a pure showpiece, to be sure, but a highly effective and satisfying one at that, in which Lang's talent could truly have come into its own. Instead, he offered Chopin's musically bland and substance-less Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante. His rendition was exciting and witty but couldn't save the piece itself.

Most memorable, no doubt, was Lang's account of Tan Dun's Eight Memories in Watercolor. Tan Dun is one of the foremost Chinese classical composers, a man who attempts to fuse Eastern and Western musical traditions, and Lang's impressionistic skill provided a rare chance to become acquainted with this rarely heard repertoire. These beautiful miniatures added a refreshing exoticism to the recital by employing the pentatonic scale. And an excited audience received more of the same when Lang brought his own father on stage for the second encore. Playing the erhu—a two-stringed Chinese violin with a unique sound—Lang Senior matched the expressive skill of his now-famous son. The piano season has gotten off a promising start with these two great talents. Now it will be the older generation's turn.