Classical music likes to take itself seriously, though that seriousness tends to be defined as much by its absence as anything concrete. That one could purchase Lang Lang T-shirts in the lobby of Symphony Hall after the pianist’s Sunday Celebrity Series recital, by conventional classical-music standards, might betoken a lack of seriousness. But the recital itself revealed a more interesting, often paradoxical notion: Despite a program that did a fair amount of campaigning to be taken seriously, Lang was at his best - and his most seriously rewarding - when courting the opposite.
The most obvious advertisement of serious intent was also the least satisfying thing on the program: Schubert’s B-flat major Sonata (D. 960). Schubert’s architecture is monumental, stately; but Lang’s playing was close-up and bijou. There were lovely moments, but that’s all there were, ineffably burnished sentences that never coalesced into paragraphs. For the august opening melody, Lang engineered a lovely morning-mist color, which returned unchanged every time the melody did, reiteration instead of evolution. It was like touring a mansion with a magnifying glass.
The concert had started with J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 (BWV 825), more equivocally navigated between niceties and structure. Lang adopted one basic color throughout, a slightly detached, highly refined glossiness. The interpretation alternated between giving the main melodic line a crystalline rendering, and bringing out inner voices with firm point. The result was a Hirschfeld drawing of the piece, a graceful black-and-white sketch.
During intermission, Lang swapped the fine-grained German Steinway for a brassier American one (something of a star-privilege trademark for him), then offered all 12 of Chopin’s Op. 25 Études, a fully stocked cabinet of virtuosity highlighting Lang’s penchant for show, not to mention showing off - the two A-minor études, nos. 4 and 11, were thrillingly cocky torrents, the relentless octaves of the B-minor positively blazed. But the spectacle also brought more creativity and daring. The E-minor étude alone contained more imagination and variety than the entirety of the Schubert, repetitions shaded and reshaded to wring out more drama. The C-sharp minor had operatic flamboyance but also operatic intensity.
For encores, Lang turned to Franz Liszt. The S. 169 “Romance’’ was a polished jewel, while the étude “La campanella’’ walked up to the line between tasteful and shameless and then, well, charged right through it. The opening octaves drifted in with insouciant inaudibility; the climax was a deafening, drawn-out fire-alarm tremolo. Brazen? Yes. Cheeky? Yes. Effective? Seriously.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri @gmail.com.