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.
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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.