Lang Lang: Nicknamed Bang Bang by the purists, but he has turned on a new generation
Watching the 16-year-old pianist Lara Ömeroglu dazzling a nationwide TV audience in the final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition, I started wondering what had gone wrong with piano recitals. Lara's unaffected passion for her music was glorious to see and hear. Yet I have the impression that the piano recital as we know it is currently meeting a slow and agonising death.
Concerts by the biggest names still sell out, but a new generation of artists is having serious problems attracting an audience. Unless they are championed by a high-profile young artists' organisation or win an international competition (and even that's no guarantee), halls for their debuts are rarely even half-full. The audience that 20 years ago might have attended out of curiosity appears to be losing interest. What happened?
Let's face it: there are too many indifferent pianists around, playing too small a repertoire. There are only a certain number of times you can sit through uninspired renditions of the Liszt B minor Sonata or the Schumann Etudes Symphoniques without falling asleep. The piano repertoire is the richest in existence, yet we only hear a fraction of it, and often in correct yet emotionally, philosophically and colouristically insipid interpretations.
Do those note-perfect performances, presumably designed to win prizes, sanitise away true artistry? It's worse. Competitions often turn up fantastic young artists but sometimes the wrong people win for the wrong reasons. I've referred before to rumbling allegations that certain jurors take backhanders from their students in return for fixing a prize. Later those players, some of whom might have gone nowhere without that help, may progress to high-profile concert engagements and CDs.
And the larger public often swallows false artists whole, thanks to glitzy publicity. There isn't sufficient education available for people to learn how better to assess what they're hearing (and the British audience is relatively knowledgeable). I've witnessed musically and even technically clueless recitals by "big names" receive standing ovations. Are some musicians so poisoned by their own stardom that they hold their audiences in contempt? Do they no longer care how they play?
There remains a hard core of truly great pianists with deep artistic values and the near-mystical capability to transmit their insights and inspirations to an audience they cherish. Even there, not all is well. Grigory Sokolov won't play in Britain again until he is not first obliged to have his fingerprints taken by ill-mannered visa officials. He doesn't make studio recordings and has given up playing concertos. Krystian Zimerman's recordings too are few and far between. Martha Argerich does not like to give solo recitals. Radu Lupu is a rare visitor and rarer recording artist; Murray Perahia has only quite recently recovered from a thumb problem that plagued him for years. Maria João Pires is retiring from concerts next year.