THE BLOG
12/10/2015 04:59 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2016

Lang Lang and London's Pen Quartet

Debunking the cliché of a critic being nothing more than a failed artist is an understandable demand on the part of this noble guild, which includes many imposing personalities. It conceals a great modesty that I propose to reveal by mentioning the innumerable examples of great pianists, violinists or conductors who would not be where they are had they not miserably failed their primary vocation, the dream of an entire lifetime shattered by ruthless competition: the position of music critic for a daily newspaper.

I reread this introduction to my column and find it subtle, acerbic, mordant... I'm satisfied with myself. The little smirk that formed whilst I was writing has now turned into uproarious laughter. It doesn't matter that it's ridiculous, pathetic and vulgar (are those not three adjectives that add such effectiveness to the act of self-satisfaction?) - I'm alone, unobserved and (most importantly) utterly full of myself.

This same onanistic pleasure brims in reviews of Lang Lang's recent London concerts. I was not present, so the material I have before me is not Lang Lang but this pen quartet: Tim Ashley of The Guardian, Michael Church of The Independent, Geoff Brown of The Times, and John Allison of The Telegraph. They are my soloists, and it is their playing that interests me, this pleasure of detestation that harmoniously binds their ensemble.

Ashley detested everything, finding 'the best [of his interpretation] perversely exciting'. So, if we understand correctly, it wasn't good but it nonetheless did him some good.

Church detested, finding 'the variations brilliantly executed but cold'. A matter of temperature, I gather.

Brown detested seeing the pianist raise his hand in the air.

But my favourite is Allison. Not for this sentence that must have brought him immense pleasure - 'For crimes against its national composer, Poland really ought to lock him up and toss the key into the Vistula' -, but for these two questions followed by responses:

'Can [Lang Lang] play Mozart? Not really.'

'Can he play Chopin? Not on the evidence of his encore.'

How fortunate Lang Lang is to have so solid an advisor, one whose certainties are so cut-and-dried !

Whether one adores or detests Lang Lang is something as personal as tastes and colours. Trying to convince the upholders of one position as to the validity of the contrary position is more a matter of metaphysical proselytising, which is not exactly my cup of tea. But there is a factual verity in this machine of passionate fantasies that our pianist henceforth embodies: it was not marketing professionals who discovered him but Christoph Eschenbach and Daniel Barenboim ! According to them, he impressed them more than any other young pianist. They took him under their wing and guided him. They were his Masters and spent hours teaching him their repertoire. The marketing came afterwards, much later.

Thus, Lang Lang, whom everyone has the right to detest, is not a marketing product; it's the marketing (aggressive, annoying, often ridiculous) that is one of the Lang Lang epiphenomena. Forgetting that seems to me the greatest of impostures! Just like forgetting this incredible scene from his childhood when his father, a complex, decisive figure, ordered him to commit suicide were he to fail. Playing the piano to save your skin is something quite different from playing to caress your narcissism and go beyond the petit-bourgeois problem of good taste in art. And those things, the public senses. 'Horowitz is not narcissistic, he's sincere,' Radu Lupu told me politely but firmly when, some twenty years ago, I had tried to be clever by criticising one Legend before another.

Besides, if pissing on the statue turns you on, pourquoi pas?

Published in French edition of Huff. Translation : John Tyler Tuttle