BEIJING – Chinese concert pianist Lang Lang has been a child prodigy, a world-renowned pianist, made pop guest appearances, and has a friendly and frank manner that elicits laughter from his team.
These days, Lang Lang, born in Shenyang, China in 1982, is presenting his interpretation of “Goldberg Variations,” one of the most famous works of the German composer and musician of the Baroque period, Johann Sebastian Bach.
The release of the work, to which he has dedicated more than 20 years, has clashed head-on with the coronavirus pandemic and forced him to cancel dozens of concerts apart from three in Germany in March, one of them next to Bach’s grave in Leipzig.
These days, he spends most of his time interacting with the media via videoconference.
“I have to connect with my international fans, so it’s fine. (But) It’s hard, 12 hours talking (every day) is not easy. You can see I have a lot of tea, juice, pear… coffee (to) maintain my spirits,” said Lang Lang, seated at the piano in the small studio he has set up to interact with the media.
Do you remember the first time you heard “Goldberg Variations”?
The first time I heard (it) from Glenn Gould. He was playing some very interesting-sounding Goldberg Variations which I never thought it can be possible to play in these dynamics (…) I was so overwhelmed by his playing and I thought maybe I should do this piece too.
The piece in the beginning is quite an easy melody (he plays it for a couple of seconds). But that’s an illusion! Because it’s very, very hard to play.
As a kid, my teacher taught me so many Baroque pieces. But then as a teenager, I didn’t do so much Bach. I became much more into the Romantic style.
Then years ago, I started re-learning more Baroque music and starting to play more Bach in the concerts and try to find the sound of an ideal Bach, not a childhood Bach. An ideal mature sound.
So does Bach sound different as you grow up?
Yeah. Bach and Mozart are the two most changing composers. When you are a kid, you think Bach is almost like playing Lego, like Legoland, with a different voice here and another voice there… and you combine them together, you synergize them together. It’s almost like a kind of mind game.
A mind game? But in theory this work was composed to induce sleep…
He composed it for Russian diplomat Keyserling (who had trouble falling asleep) and he put Goldberg (his best student) to play for the Russian diplomat every second day to put him to sleep.
But at the end of the day, this is not a sleeping pill. This is almost like Inception. You know the movie? Almost like that – so many layers… I tried to sleep with this piece! And I was very successful in the first five minutes and then right away I got up! (plays a rousing passage while he mimics waking up).
And then I fall asleep again (plays a slower passage while nodding as if falling asleep) and then (another rousing part while he opens his eyes). So it’s always… you kinda always wake (up) in this piece.
Haven’t you slept well in the last 20 years of studying the “Variations” then?
Not really… This piece is not easy. Sometimes (it) makes me feel fear, sometimes (it) makes me feel pain, disconnected. It’s not simple.
What makes it so special?
First of all, the design of the piece – it’s like designing a pyramid of Egypt. Thirty variations with a perfect symmetry and pattern and nine canons as the main body (he plays it on the piano). So in a way everything is so perfectly matched, but everything has to repeat – so you almost have like a second life.
And then in between those canons… Everything you learn from the past Bach pieces he melts everything in. And he also wants to tell the people – “with a simple few notes, I can make everything different all the time.”
So this is the biggest mind game. But they’re real emotions! It’s not like let’s just do a concept. Everything has to work emotionally and to connect to the authentic way of playing the harpsichord and the baroque organ.
So you have to be thinking not only in the finger playing, but in the feet playing (he plays, pushing the pedals emphatically). You have to play thinking that you are an organ player. You cannot think of this piece only as a modern piano. That doesn’t work.
How has your relationship with Bach evolved over the years?
Of course I love Bach. But I didn’t really understand him. I thought he was too far from my emotions. As I said, I felt it more like a brain exercise, to try to divide your mind and strategize the thing, try to become a smart person. But a smart person doesn’t mean an emotional player – those are two different things.
And the more I know about Bach, the more I realize he’s actually the most complicated, emotional person. He’s not someone who just tricks your brain. I realized I was wrong. I always felt more obvious emotions with Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff… but then you realize there are other styles of emotions. And Bach had both.
Let’s imagine that Bach walks in through the door right now and catches you playing his “Variations.” What would you say?
What would I NOT tell him? This is ridiculous. He’s gonna tell me lots of things. I would stop playing and ask him – can you play for me? And then after he plays, I would say – oh, look, this is what I feel! (laughs). I would have a heart attack…
In this recording, I played very close to him (in the St. Thomas church in Leipzig, where Bach is buried and used to work). It felt so real, so spiritual, that he’s really there… I felt my heart beat. I really could feel his soul in the room. Specially, when I played his organ.
But after so much research and practice, the time of the launch has clashed with a pandemic that has forced you to cancel all your concerts. How do you feel?
I had to cancel all of them internationally, but I did a few in China, to keep my fingers warm – but not full capacity concerts… like you know, 30 percent.
But this piece really gave me encouragement to get through this difficult time. So that’s why I want to share this piece and release it even in this time for my audience around the world for them not to feel alone.
Could you translate the current situation in the world, with the pandemic, into music?
Oh, yeah. Let’s see… I like to use this low movement to feel it… (he began to play Goldberg Variations number 25 with his eyes closed).
Do you miss normalcy?
I can’t wait for that (the return to normalcy). For us, the most important moment is still performing on stage.
No matter how advanced our phones are or how many concerts are shown on the network, nothing is replaceable for a real concert, because you unite everyone’s heart in the same room. And then you bring them to a journey, we all breath together and sail on the same boat.
Even the greatest sound system can’t take you (there). It takes you to your own world, but (you can) not take the entire crowd.