Lang Lang review – Bach’s Goldbergs are smothered with love

Lang Lang comes as a package deal. Even after a lay-off due to an arm problem he still has his wondrous piano technique. He always offers himself as a wholly serious musician. He is certainly an important one – an inspiration to millions. But he is also one of the most mannered maulers of the repertoire you are ever likely to encounter.

This Barbican recital showcased all of it. No pianist playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations – they were prefaced by Schumann’s Op 18 Arabesque – is trying to take the public’s money for old rope. One or two tiptoed exits during the Goldbergs suggested some were not getting what they had expected. Be clear, too, that there were moments of dazzlingly appropriate Bach playing, as in the lightning fast skips and shadings of the 14th variation, where Lang’s quicksilver touch was a delight.

Related: Bach: Goldberg Variations review | Andrew Clements's classical album of the week

Too often, though, Lang seemed intent on smothering the music with love, in little details as well as the big picture. When he plays fast, he is very fast; when he is slow, he is funereal. The opening aria was pulled about with such elongated exaggeration that its role as the heartbeat of the 30 variations that follow was lost. The celebrated 25th variation, whose stillness and chromaticism are the emotional crux of the work, was stretched beyond belief and almost came to a halt.

Some Lang idiosyncrasies worked, like his habit of suddenly spotlighting a previously unnoticed jaunty rhythmic figure. He was alive, too, to articulating the ground bass that holds the structure together. At other times, though, the quirkiness becomes perverse. The mannered dynamics that Lang imposed on the last Quodlibet variation, one of the most sociable moments in the Goldbergs, meant that the following return of the opening aria felt like an add-on rather than a reflective return from a long musical journey.

Andras Schiff once said he always hopes audiences will leave without applause after the Goldbergs. No chance of that here. The fans were on their feet immediately. It’s all part of the deal.