Lang Lang on mastering Bach’s Goldberg Variations: it’s made me a better pianist, the Chinese virtuoso says

Chinese pianist Lang Lang may have been playing J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations for close to three decades, but it was only this year that he felt confident enough to make a recording of the work – two, in fact.
“I have been practising it since the age of 10 … playing it is very challenging,” Lang says of the work, written in 1741 for a different keyboard instrument, the harpsichord. “You have to master the pure Baroque way of playing it, while paying attention to the improvisatory parts. (I have to) use my hands, brain and heart when playing it.
“All these years, I kept using my brain to learn (how to play it). Instead of relying on pure feelings alone, you have to have accumulated knowledge to play it. Your heart also has to be at peace, with nary a stray thought.”
More than a decade ago, when he was in his mid-20s, Lang performed the work for Nikolaus Harnoncourt at an informal audition for the Salzburg Festival and was slammed by the Austrian conductor for playing Bach with no imagination.
To improve on his performance, Lang sought advice from leading interpreters of Bach’s music, including Harnoncourt and harpsichordist and early keyboard specialist Andreas Staier.
Lang also credits his first piano teacher, Zhu Yafen, for guiding him in his journey to attain the right state of mind to perform the work – a theme with 30 variations. “She is the best teacher in China to teach Bach,” the pianist says.
The Goldberg Variations is often described as the musical Everest, and a long list of pianists and harpsichordists have attempted to conquer it. Lang says he loves the way late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould interpreted the work, and says he has added “Oriental elements” to Bach in his interpretation.
Lang says mastering the Goldberg Variations has made him a better pianist. “My self-confidence has increased. I can handle whatever slow-tempo pieces (I want) now,” he says.
Released by the German classical music record label Deutsche Grammophon (part of Universal Music), the album features two performances of the work – one in a studio and another recorded live in a concert Lang gave at the historic St Thomas Church in Leipzig, eastern Germany, Bach’s workplace for almost 30 years and the site of his grave.
“(It) felt incredible performing at St Thomas,” the 38-year-old pianist recalls. “In all my past solo recitals, I never felt so close to the composer. I’ve moved into new terrain with the Goldberg Variations and really immersed myself fully in this project.”
Lang took the work on tour in China, performing in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hangzhou in August. His upcoming concert dates include Xian, Shanghai and Beijing at the end of the year. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 70 of his concerts have been cancelled.
Lang is one of the most widely followed classical pianists in the world, and his previous album, the 2019 studio release Piano Book, topped classical music charts in many countries, including Germany, France, Britain and Japan.
Piano Book is a collection of well-known classical compositions including Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Beethoven’s FUr Elise; Lang’s rendition of the latter was streamed 5.1 million times on Spotify in the four months following the album’s release in March 2019.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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