Lang Lang's reputation as an exceptional and irrepressible showman has traveled far and wide. At 25, the Chinese pianist is already so popular that his record label, Deutsche Grammophon, markets him as a kind of Pavarotti of the piano. His latest disc, "The Magic of Lang Lang," is a meaningless mishmash of sometimes nauseatingly overplayed excerpts from all over the place and concludes with a collaboration with Andrea Bocelli.
Yet a recording issued a few months earlier of two Beethoven concertos, accompanied by Christoph Eschenbach leading the Orchestre de Paris, is serious and very fine. And two years ago, Lang Lang was an exacting and exciting soloist in Bartok's Second Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Tuesday night, he returned to Walt Disney Concert Hall for a recital. The place was, inevitably, packed. The audience was antsy, wanting fireworks, and Lang Lang eventually delivered. First, though, he had to prove he was a poet.
He is a poet. But he is an immature poet with a nuclear arsenal, and that makes him a very dangerous poet. The nuclear part of the weaponry is a killer technique. The threat is in the delivery system. He has the charisma to hold an audience in his power. Responsibility, though, is another matter.
The first half of Tuesday's recital was refined, elegant and verged on the eloquent. It began with Mozart's B-flat Sonata, K. 333, played with delicacy. Then Schumann's large Fantasy in C brought out ardor. In both pieces, Lang Lang skimmed the surface. But the surfaces he created were flawless. Not every lake is best appreciated by jumping in.
In a tone sweet and pretty, a young pianist sang Mozart's praises. His interpretation was chaste. Phrases rounded out just as they should. Melodies hung in the air nicely. Scale passages were smooth, even delicate.
Schumann received the benefit of a monster technique. The rolling bass lines, the trills, the intricate syncopations all sounded natural and alluring. The march movement had irresistible momentum. Lang Lang was loud, triumphant, and he was soft, floating pianissimos. His body, arm and torso as elastic as his phrasing. Still, for better and worse, this was a Fantasy all in the fingers.
After intermission came the fun, piled on gradually. In five traditional Chinese works, an impressionistic moon was reflected on a lake, a dance number was given a tango twist, happy holidays were indicated by a spray of zillions of notes. Granados' "Los Requiebros" (Flatteries) was a Spanish dance that sounded not all that far from China.
Then, for no apparent reason, Lang Lang turned to Liszt's transcription of the "Liebestod" from "Tristan and Isolde," and "The Magic of Lang Lang" made sense.
In the program notes, Orrin Howard remarked that Liszt's version is entirely respectful of its Wagnerian source, "an unadorned realization from piano of the orchestral/vocal original." Lang Lang did the adorning.
As the evening progressed, he had become more and more animated on his bench, swooning for the reflected moon, dancing along, best as he could on his bench, with the dances. For the "Liebestod," he became transfixed. He was singer and orchestra. Isolde's melody -- sung as she is about to leave her body to be with her dead Tristan, love transcending all -- hovered in space surrounded by swirling accompaniment. Like a storyteller of genius, Lang Lang cast a spell, and an otherwise noisy audience sat enthralled.
Then, Liszt's Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody and the circus act: the Lang Lang many had come for. His body was in constant motion. He flew across the keys. He was pianist/acrobat. The performance seemed superhuman and was, of course, thrilling. It was also a disgrace. The soul was eliminated from music in which there is a great deal.
Lang Lang has inherited Liberace's curse. Once the audience knows what he can do, he must give it what it wants. And each time, he must outdo himself. In the single encore, Chopin's Etude, Opus 10, No. 3, he outdid himself.
Lang Lang is probably the great pianist of his generation. But I'm afraid his career is not turning out to be an easy one.