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Ludwig Van
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INTERVIEW | Superstar Pianist Lang Lang Talks About The Goldberg Variations And Music Education

By Anya Wassenberg on February 17, 2021

Lang Lang (Image courtesy of the artist)
Lang Lang (Image courtesy of the artist)

Together with Universal Music Canada

Pianist Lang Lang needs no introduction. A fixture on the classical music circuit internationally, he’s played with major orchestras and in the most renowned concert halls all over the world.

Lang Lang spent decades studying The Goldberg Variations before recording them, and that research included the work of other composers. Following up on his Goldberg Variations in September 2020, Lang Lang recently released the Goldberg Variations Extended Edition (February 12, 2021, on Deutsche Grammophon) as a digital companion to the album. The new recordings add musical context to the Goldberg Variations themselves, including seven tracks. They feature Bach’s contemporaries like Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel’s “Bist du bei mir”, Schumann’s Arabesque, and others.

Along with the music, the digital package features videos of performances as well as Lang Lang talking about the works. One of the pieces, an arrangement of “Sheep may safely graze”, was recorded with his wife, German-Korean pianist Gina Alice Redlinger. The couple recently welcomed their first child.

Along with performance and his own music, Lang Lang has been dedicated to promoting music education.

Lang Lang, Berlin, 20.03.2020_0102_final
Lang Lang (Image courtesy of the artist)

You recently held the “Lang Lang & Friends: Reaching Dreams Through Music” event in December, as part of the ongoing mandate for your Lang Lang International Music Foundation™ (LLIMF). Do you have any upcoming events or plans for the LLIMF?

How important is it that children have access to music education throughout the world today?

I think it is tremendously important that children are provided access to music. It helps foster their creativity and imagination and gives them space in which they can be safe and succeed. In 2021, we continue to work on quite a few exciting initiatives to bring our programs into the virtual space. Pre-virus, our scholars used to perform in hospitals, schools and community centres to bring classical music to audiences who would not normally have access.

We have now turned this initiative into a virtual weekly series, Play it forward on Instagram — with a new performance going live every Friday. We also recently partnered with Big Ear Games, a music learning app that encourages students to create and socialize through music. On “Music Education Monday”, we present videos of music lessons and music education tips, games, songs and activities from our Keys of Inspiration teachers, and we are organizing a lot of virtual classes and training.

Your website mentions playing for school children in China. In the news, we hear that there is a growing amount of interest in Western classical music in China, and in music education as well. Is that what you have experienced?

There is a strong interest in China for classical music, but also for music in general. A lot of children love to play the piano. They play all different kinds of music on the piano, classical music alongside popular music. In China, everyone knows famous classical pieces such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Für Elise.

What led you to Bach and the Goldberg Variations in particular? Your repertoire has been varied throughout your career, but in terms of recording, it seems to have focused more on the Romantic period.

J.S. Bach has been in my life since my early childhood. My teacher, Ms. Zhou, had me play Bach every week. The Goldberg Variations were already in my fingers when I was a teenager. It is one of the most important and complex works ever written for the keyboard, and I felt that I needed more time to develop it and also learn about the right stylistic approach for Baroque music.

Lang Lang, Berlin, 20.03.2020
Lang Lang (Image courtesy of the artist)

On your website, you are quoted, “I’ve been studying this work for more than 20 years…” — what led you to know that now was the right time to record it?

I have played the Goldbergs for various great musicians and mentors throughout my life — to Maestro Christoph Eschenbach, to Maestros Daniel Barenboim and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. They gave me tremendously valuable input and perspective. At some point, I felt I could make this piece my own and deliver my very own vision of this work. After taking the decision to record it, I spent many weeks together with the brilliant harpsichordist and keyboardist Andreas Staier, who worked with me on important things such as ornamentation and period practice style to prepare myself for the recording.

You have recorded additional tracks, some of Bach, but others by contemporaries, and the Arabesque by Schumann you just released. It seems like you would like your audiences to understand the musical environment and legacy of the work, as well as enjoy and appreciate the Goldberg Variations proper. Is that an accurate statement?

Is this an approach you will take to the concert stage as well in terms of programming? And specifically — why Schumann directly before the Goldberg Variations (as you mention in your video)?

Each of the pieces I recorded has been carefully selected and has a special meaning for me. The duet “Sheep may safely graze,” which I recorded with my wife Gina Alice, connects me with an unforgettable memory — our wedding day. We played it in Versailles for the first time in front of family and friends. The Italian Concerto I played in concert many times and the D Major Sonata by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the harpsichordist who lent his name to the Bach Variations, was a true discovery for me. I had not known his music before I studied Bach’s masterwork. I was actually astonished that Goldberg must have been a pretty good keyboard player. As an admirer of Wilhelm Kempff, I have known his sublime transcription of the Siciliano from Bach’s Second Flute Sonata since my early childhood and have always wanted to play it. I don’t know if I will play these in concert — possibly. Let’s see!

Who is Bach to you?

Bach is the perfect combination between brain and heart. His music is so logical and analytical and gives your brain so much to do. At the same time, he reaches your heart instantly.

Lang Lang’s new extended edition of The Goldberg Variations, which includes filmed performances and discussions of the interpretations, is out now.

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