Curb your impatience: Lang Lang does the Goldberg Variations

Curb your impatience: Lang Lang does the Goldberg Variations


norman lebrecht

July 10, 2020

DG are to release a twin-set in September, it was announced this morning.

Press release:
Pianist Lang Lang has conquered a musical Everest, realising a lifelong dream with his brand-new recording of J. S. Bach’s monumental keyboard work Goldberg Variations. Set for release on Deutsche Grammophon on 4th September, Lang Lang gives two complementary performances. The first was recorded in a single take in concert at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Bach’s workplace for almost 30 years and his final resting place; the second was made soon after, in the seclusion of the studio. The two recordings, purchased together as part of a super deluxe edition, make this a world-first simultaneous live and studio album release.

“I’m now 38 and, while that’s not old, I think the time was right for a new stage in my artistic development,” says Lang Lang. “I’ve moved into new terrain with the Goldberg Variations and really immersed myself fully in this project. My goal as an artist is to keep becoming more self-aware and more knowledgeable, as well as to keep offering inspiration to others. It’s an ongoing process, but this project has taken me a little further along the path.”

Lang Lang’s long journey into the heart of one of the greatest works in western classical music began with childhood lessons learning Bach’s music in his native China. He was just 17 when he played the Goldberg Variations from memory for the conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach, an unforgettable experience for both musicians. Lang Lang subsequently sought expert advice from leading interpreters of the composer’s music, conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt and harpsichordist and early keyboard specialist Andreas Staier among them.


  • Simon Dearsley says:

    Unusually slow account, his characteristic lyricism seems to have been abandoned. The ornaments an apparent odd addition to the melodies in both hands. A new but for me a strange interpretation that feels depressed. I am disappointed at such an unexpected performance from one of my heros.

    • V. Lind says:

      Am I in a time warp? Has September come without me noticing?

      What are you reviewing?

    • Hilary says:

      “Unusually slow “ : Not measured by some of the recordings I know.

      Gould (1981) :1minute 32 seconds over the first 16 bars .

      Alexis Weissenberg :1min 12 secs

      Lang Lang : 1 minute 17 seconds

  • Nick2 says:

    Why would anyone wish to purchase two performances of the Variations recorded by the same artist at virtually the same time? The acoustic of the Thomaskirche will almost certainly be
    more reverberant, but will a piano placed alongside Bach’s gravestone make much difference to the interpretation? Or is the intention that the spirit of Bach will inspire a more valid interpretation? A Lang Lang/DGG gimmick by the sound of it!

    • LP says:

      I wonder if we can hear Bach turning over in his grave during the Thomaskirche recording. Over and over and over.

  • I have no impatience about it at all! The only emotion I feel about Lang Lang is about a powerful marketing

  • Jay says:

    One cannot but laugh at this latest promo…it’s not about Bach…it’s about second rate photography documenting a
    piano player supposedly being transported while playing Bach…..the ending alone reminds one of the famous comment by Wilde on the death of little Nell.

  • A.L. says:

    Someone wake me up at the point when he orgasms in the video.

  • Stephen Gould says:

    So what.

  • Ken says:

    This is appalling in every conceivable way, musical, directorial and otherwise. Supposed to put the man to sleep, not horrify him into committing seppuku.

  • TS Ell says:

    People commenting on here have not even made to a music hall stage, all the sourness as if they can all play the piece.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      That’s perfectly true; I know I haven’t. And I don’t make wine so I’m unqualified to decide which is a good one and which not so good.

    • MacroV says:

      Whatever you may think of the comments, the ability to play like a virtuoso is not a prerequisite for posting comments here. Nor, apparently, is the ability to write like a famous author.

    • A Pianist says:

      I am sure I am far from the only reader here who has toured with this piece (I played the Eroica Vars in the second half).

    • AN says:

      I not only play the piece but have performed and recorded it. If this trailer video is any indication of the rest of Lang Lang’s recording (as it no doubt is), Bach will indeed be turning over in his grave, as someone else commented already.

      I’d leave my name, and you could check my credentials, but I don’t actually need any backlash from the trolls for agreeing with most of the comments here.

      • guest says:

        If you read english the trolls hold your point of view. So you got nothing to worry about 🙂 do tell your credentials!

    • Maria says:

      Yes, all anonymous armchair experts, dissecting every single note sung or played by some of us who have done the job, and they having never played a note professionally themselves. I’m no fan of the Lang-Lang and his in your face promotion, which doesn’t sit so easy with us Brits, but he’s allowed to play his music the way he wants, and no one is compelled to buy it or anyone’s CD!

  • Myrtar says:

    I wonder if Harnoncourt (RIP) or Eschenbach would back up the claim that this interpretation is under their guidance. I doubt any of them would agree with his student-like ornamenti.

    • Arthur says:

      Nonsense. Everyone here is exactly entitled to pass judgement. The great probability is that you, too, can barely make it through any of the exercises in Suzuki Piano Vol. 1, so don’t try to take on the subject of aesthetic criticism.

  • Simon says:

    Listening to just that little bit is truly a religious experience. For him.

  • Sixtus says:

    I found LangX2’s attempts at ornamenting the repeats of the Aria both labored and unstylish (in the HIP sense). If one insists on manipulating the Goldberg Aria it makes far more musical sense to attempt a DE-ornamentation; the Aria as Bach printed it is fully ornamented as-is. The late, great harpsichordist Igor Kipnis attempts precisely such a de-ornamentation in his recording with a far more interesting result. The Kipnis recording is available for streaming at Apple Music, Amazon Music and Spotify (and possibly other services I don’t subscribe to).

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Kipnis was inspired to de-ornament the theme by Kempff, if I recall correctly. He gave a guest lecture to a freshman introductory music course in 1971 at UCSD, where he described his initial reaction to hearing Kempff’s spare initial statement of the theme. His reaction was literally the words represented by: WTF?! And then he thought it over, and it seemed like a great idea…

      His lecture was the first time I ever heard the f-word in a classroom presentation. Not the last, however…

  • If he also had Liberace’s solid sense of rhythm as well as in addition to his musical outlook, this could’ve worked.

    • Wladziu says:

      I agree. No way you can compare Lang Lang’s pianism to Liberace. Liberace was a much better musician. Liberace was often bemused at his own tackiness, which showed a greater self-awareness than Lang Lang’s unmusical self absorption.

  • “a world-first simultaneous live and studio album release.” No – it has happened before. And also on DG: Pollini’s June 2002 studio recordings of Beethoven Sonatas Op. 57 & 78 were accompanied by a free bonus CD of live performances of the same sonatas at the Musikverein, also in June 2002. (The studio recordings also included Op. 54 & 90.)

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Must be DG appropriating Trump’s trope: “like nothing the world has ever seen before,” etc.

  • Call me Goldberg says:

    Languishingly Langsom


    Almost devolves into nonsense when played too slowly, not to mention the spurious ornaments. My models are Wanda Landowska and the earlier filmed performance of Glenn Gould.

    • Hilary says:

      but GG is a tad slower than LL if we’re taking the 1981 recording (film and recording broadly speaking the same).

  • fliszt says:

    He tortures this poor Aria – it is pure agony to listen to it.

  • Hedgehog says:

    Utterly grotesque and shameful; a repulsive, self-regarding abuse of a sublime masterpiece which makes me want to weep.

  • Ira says:


  • Greg Bottini says:

    There are a lot of negative comments here, a number of them alluding to Lang Lang’s appearance while he plays.
    There are a number of excellent musicians who are (to me) excruciating to watch – Joshua Bell with his swinging and swaying, Itzhak Perlman with his scrunchy-scary facial expressions, Gil Shaham, who sweats buckets all over his priceless violins, and of course Lang Lang and his over-the-top showbiz bull***t. I just close my eyes and listen to the sound of the music.
    I myself think it’s a fascinating idea to release simultaneously a “live” version as well as a studio version of the Goldbergs, and I look forward to hearing them and comparing them.
    But I’ll stick to the audio-only release.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Sadly, Lang Lang robs this Aria of its baroque sensibility and structure and has attempted to hijack it as part of his ‘romantic era’ repertoire. Fail.

    This is an entirely subjective appraisal; others will like it.

  • Feurich says:

    Painful to listen to.

  • Larry W says:

    There is a lovely part from 3:34 to 4:06. It has none of the non-directional ornaments with false accents found elsewhere.

  • Edward says:

    Some details of his recording has already been released on Qobuz:

    The studio recording took over 90 minutes. The live one seems a little faster, but still a very long performance.

  • Zhang Wang Li Zhao Mei Mei Xi says:

    I understand that some music lovers (they probably are not pianists) don’t like 郎朗‘s interpretation. But why are they making fun of his name? Ignorant and stupid.

  • christopher storey says:

    Can I sue DGG for inducing nausea in me ?

  • Charies says:

    I found this interpretation extremely moving. I moved on to something else immediately at the end of the opening section. What treacle.

  • Daniel A. says:

    @Norman Lebrecht –

    if you have an insider at DG – any chance you can scrounge up some news on the latest release of the on-going Shostakovich symphony cycle with Nelson and the BSO?

    DG had been issuing a release yearly and they are overdue at this point. By my account they have already recorded and waiting to release Syms. 1, 2, 12, 14, & 15, the chamber symphony, and the 1st piano concerto (i think).

    The final installment due to be recorded include the 13th ( this October) and 3rd ( February ’21), and likely a full staging of Lady Macbeth (may ’21?) – which look doubtful at this point due to covid-19.

  • CP says:

    I saw, I heard, I laughed.

  • Edgar Self says:

    For a first statement of thesarabande whose bass line anchors these canons and variations , too much mooning and stop/start tempo fiddling with some unconvincing ornaments. It would be excessive even for the valedictory epilog repeating the sarabande ater all its vicissitudes and the riotous quodlibet I like this far less than the quick variation posted more recently.

    Ste. Wanda Landowska 1945 plays it Bach’s way, the best of all ways, rock-solid, sane, controlled, steel-trap fingers and tempi, utterly convincing embellishments, the Goldbergs as Will and Idea, seewing-machine trills, you eon’t dream of questioning her anything whatsoever.

    Konstantin Lifschitz, the fallible but right-headed and -hearted Tatiana Nikolayeva, Kempff’s disccipline and self-control, Weissenberg’s second-hand Landowskanismus. Gould makes me nervous, though I saw him play them, exaggerated either too fast or too slow,and his undisciplined singing distractslOther harpsichordists are versts and leagues behind Landowska”You play Bacch your way; I’ll play him in his.” Proven, sworn.

    Greg Bottini cites some platform ye-sores to whom I add Dudamel, Bernstein, Ruolf Serkin, Gould, Uchida, the Wolf Woman Grimaud, and th worst I’ve sn, the preposterous Olli Mustonen, who appears to ride a bicyce upside down. Not for them the calm self-mastery of Rubinstein, Weissenberg’s glacial repose, Cdortot’s virtual immobility, magical waywardness, and brilliant inaccuracy, Kempff, Bckhaus, Gieseking, and many another I’ve seen, respected, and entrusted with the music.

  • Jeff says:

    I don’t get why people go orgasmic over the Goldberg Variations or why they are held in such esteem. They are meh at best, no matter who is at the piano.

  • varmint1 says:

    Lang Lang is dropping all dynamics and ornament from this perfomance. Listen Grigory Sokolov and be overwhelmed by a live performance with fabulous trills. I can’t see this fellow dropping Liszt for Bach, he sounds like he just got out of rehab.

  • MiMi Lee says:

    To me, there’s no right or wrong in commenting. It all depends how our ‘personal judgement’ this score should be interpreted. Now, we are into modern century. We should be more ‘open minded’. It’s how the performer ‘feel’ during that moment when the he/she interprets the music as it is played on the piano. It’s refreshing to hear something different too. We should be thankful to all performers to let us listen the GV in different styles they wish to express. ✊✌️

  • Esswei Jaycee says:

    Whether one likes or hates this Goldberg by Lang Lang, I bet that twenty years from now, classical music fans will only remember and converse on two versions to express their musical feelings on the interpretation of this Bach masterpiece: the version by Glenn Gould recorded shortly before his untimely death and this version by Lang Lang.