Article by CRYSTAL A. FROST for Grammy.com
The piano virtuoso opens up to GRAMMY.com about the ways in which he immersed himself in Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ and the deeper inspiration behind his new album
Optimistic, bold and authentic—who better to take on the Goldberg Variations than 38-year-old piano virtuoso, Lang Lang? The GRAMMY-nominated concert pianist and philanthropist released his 10th studio album on Sept. 4, fulfilling one of his lifelong dreams of recording Johann Sebastian Bach’s most challenging solo keyboard work, the Goldberg Variations. First published in 1741, the work consists of a theme and 30 variations and was written for a young keyboardist named Johann Goldberg to play for the Russian Ambassador, Count Keyserling, as a treatment for his insomnia.
Lang Lang, whose music career began 20 years ago when he was barely 18 years old, has built up to this moment for all two decades, having also studied the beloved Bach piece in his youth, like young Goldberg. For this groundbreaking two-part recording project, the Beijing-based pianist traveled to Bach’s very own St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, where he recorded the work both live in concert as well as in the studio in Berlin.
In this interview, Lang Lang opens up about the ways in which he immersed himself in Bach’s world and the deeper inspiration behind his new album. Read on to learn what sets Bach apart from other composers, and why young pianists should never give up their dreams.
You just completed a massive project which involved recording and performing one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most important works in his very own St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany. What was this experience like for you?
It was like playing next to Bach’s spirit. It’s unbelievable that he worked the rest of his life there, from age 38! I also played his Baroque organ, which still looks almost the same as when he was there. In fact, I visited several other locations with Bach history in order to connect with him. On the way to the St. Thomas Church, I stopped at his first job’s location in Arnstadt, Germany, where I tried his very first Baroque organ. I also went to his home, which is now a museum in Leipzig, and played the Goldberg music from his original manuscript on his harpsichord! It is really incredible—it is almost like he is still alive.
What is it that you love about Bach that sets him apart from all of the other composers?
Bach was the beginning of a huge generation to come. For us concert pianists, Bach made so many voices with his mathematical methods. His music was not only horizontal and melodic, but vertical—making the keyboard sound like a symphonic orchestra! Before Bach, music was melody-driven and, while it had beautiful melodies and nice feelings, it didn’t have bricks. After Bach, the harmonic component of music became much more solid—he built pyramids with music. In a way, he is the greatest architect of classical music.
I understand that you studied Bach’s Goldberg Variations when you were just a teenager. Is it true that you performed this major work in full at just 17 years old?
Yes, I was a replacement of Andre Watts at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival. It started when I played a Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, which was my first time playing in one of the major five American Orchestras. I was so overwhelmed after the concert, and then Christoph Eschenbach and a few other musicians asked me whether I can play more music…specifically Bach, who is considered more challenging than Tchaikovsky. I told them, “Yeah! I know the Goldberg Variations.” He said “Okay. Do you want to do it?” It was crazy and I decided, “Yeah, yeah sure let’s do it!” So I played the whole thing actually, that night, and that was my first big public appearance.
The Goldberg Variations is such a massive, complex body of work. How did you begin intricately studying something so giant at such a young age? What was your secret?
I watched a film, on video cassette at that time, of Glenn Gould playing The Goldberg Variations in 1981. This was 1992 when I was 10 years old. I was watching Glenn Gould play this on the crappy television, and I thought to myself, “Wow! I never thought Bach could be played this way!” Until that point, I was quite reserved when I would play Bach because I always thought Bach was very strict, where you can’t do crazy things. And then I see Glenn Gould—he played with such excitement and everything he was doing was so unusual, so exciting, and so beautiful! It was then that I realized, wow—you can actually play Bach in a much more emotional way than I originally thought. So I began practicing the Goldberg Variations as an exercise, and that is how it all started.
Lang Lang performs Bach’s Goldberg Variations at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany.
Photo credit: Stefan Hoederath
And now we fast forward 20 years later when you are 38—just like Bach was when he began working at St. Thomas Church. Are there any important lessons you drew from your younger self or others as you began this new recording project?
I think the greatest part about starting so young is I was able to memorize it so well for this project—it is a very hard piece to memorize! But the more important development occurred in the last three years as I began getting into the Baroque style on actual Baroque instruments. This is something that I never had training in as a kid because I was always just playing on the piano. As you know, piano is a very different instrument from the harpsichord or the organ. Though there is an authentic way of playing Bach on the piano, I decided to go and study with a harpsichordist Andreas Staier, a German Baroque master. It was he who really helped me to understand everything: the structure of the Baroque sound, the strategy, and more importantly, how to work on the slower passages.
It seems like so much goes into learning Bach! What else makes Bach’s music unique?
To play Bach is really like playing jazz music. The reason I’m saying that is because, in classical repertoire, like Beethoven or Brahms, if you change even one note you are probably already dead to the classical music community. But in Bach’s Baroque music, you get to add all different sorts of ornamentations. In fact, all across the Baroque repertoire in France and Italy as well, there were so many decoration notes and ornamentations! Because of this, every night you are playing the piece a little differently, so in that way you are really like a jazz musician. Bach also never writes dynamics or articulations clearly, giving us much more room to do improvisation. To me this is still unbelievable, and a great advantage.
This album features two full recordings of the Goldberg Variations—one in concert, and one in the studio. You pointed out that performing live in concert you get to enjoy the work as a collective whole, but in the studio you get to enjoy the nuánces of each individual movement. Which of these recording environments do you prefer, and why?
Actually, I love both! The studio is very great because I can be relaxed and take a lot of time to listen back, and if I don’t like something, I can re-record it. Glenn Gould said he 100% prefers studio recording for Bach; that way he can work really hard and have a timeless piece. This is why I decided to record the Goldberg Variations in the studio. But at the same time, I first wanted to have the experience of recording the piece at Bach’s church in Leipzig in order to feel Bach’s original spontaneous feelings. If I had known it was going to be such a magical night though, I would have had eight cameras and an entire crew! The live recording sounds like an old record, and that is only because of the sound of the church. That kind of sound you can not copy in the recording studio; you cannot mimic that atmosphere. In the studio, you do everything five times. So, while it also comes from the heart, it doesn’t have the sincerity and authenticity of the concert hall where all you have is that one beautiful moment.
Which of the 30 Goldberg Variations is your favorite?
My favorite variation is Variation 25—it’s the slowest, most painful, and struggling, but with real hope. It’s almost like snails trying to climb the mountain; even though it feels like he/she goes one step forward and two steps back, it’s still going up very slowly, which is why I really think this variation is the most special one. To practice, I would say Variation 26. This is a great variation; a very joyful one to practice.
When you look back on the past two decades, what other music projects or achievements are you the most proud of?
I would say my Carnegie Hall Live in 2003 is something that I feel very proud of, and it was also my Carnegie Hall recital debut. Also, my recording with Maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt, The Mozart Album, is another I feel very proud of. And then, there is one more: Prokofiev 3 and Bartok 2 with The Berlin Philharmonic. Of course every recording I try my best, I really do, but I think for these recordings I had a more personal means of expressing on behalf of the composer, and expressing the piece itself. I feel you must really know the historical context and take a lot of time in order to understand these particular composers. This is completely unlike composers from the Romantic Era because, even though you may not know their lives so well, their music is so emotional that you can just receive their spirit very easily. But with Mozart, Bach and even Bartok, you have to really dig. Bartok actually has a very dry sense of humor…it is like he knows something mysterious from another part of the universe!
Well, I was very excited when actually during the pandemic I had a collaboration with Celine Dion, John Legend and Lady Gaga for the One World concert back in April. I was really grateful to be a part of that. I am also grateful to the GRAMMYs though, actually, because they are sort of responsible for several of my collaborations. Who knows, maybe my next one will be with some other big pop artist or something EDM! That’s what’s so great about the GRAMMYs—there are no limits—only good music!
Speaking of your virtual concert in April, how has the quarantine been for you?
I’m okay. I have spent the time practicing at home and learning new repertoire. I am also teaching. We have many schools both in America and China, so we decided to begin a lot of online teaching. In fact, we are also planning a virtual concert at my Foundation, which is in partnership with the GRAMMY foundation for music education. The virtual concert will be in December for all of our music students in America, China and parts of Europe to do performances, and professional musicians who are involved will give talks about the importance of music education in the world. So the quarantine is not great, not ideal, but it’s okay.
What are some words of wisdom that you would like to share with young pianists who look up to you and are pursuing a career as a concert pianist?
I would say, never give up your musical dream. Know that it is really hard to become a professional musician, so you have to be really strong in both your mind and in your heart. There will be a lot of difficulties in life, but music really makes us think much bigger than who we really are. Music really brings us to another dimension in life, so the goal is to always remain fresh with your music-making. As a professional player, you can get bored of practicing and lose direction, but you must never stop searching for new ways to improve yourself. That flame, our fire in our heart, it is passionate and can be disorganized but we must continue to practice music every day to never let the flame die.