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A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. That third order gives not just pleasure, but transcendence. Below is the second of three parts.

At the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust, his aging hero looks out on the world with a note of satisfaction. “I could almost wish this moment to last forever, it is so beautiful.”

That is exactly how pianist Lang Lang played the slow movement of the Chopin E-minor piano concerto with the Phoenix Symphony when I heard him in the fall of 2008. He lingered over the larghetto, stretching its already vague rhythmic drive down to a near halt, and stopping the audience’s breath with it.

Each phrase seemed to pour forth spontaneously from the pianist’s fingers, followed by another seemingly thought of on the spot. No two phrases were played at the same tempo, and each tempo seemed perfectly expressive.

It is a rare performer who can risk such an arrhythmia, and who can use it to make the music express poetry and longing, dreaming and anticipation. It was one of the best performances ever given by a soloist at Symphony Hall.

That the pianist felt so expressively free comes as a surprise: His recording of the same concerto is rather dull and literal-minded. His Phoenix performance was a poetic night to his recording’s washed-out noonday glare.

Even Lang’s stage demeanor was less like the reputation that preceded him: While he certainly emoted while playing, there was less of the rocking and eye-rolling that he has engaged in in the past. His most obvious physical “dance” came during that slow-movement, when he leaned back as if he were in a recliner, with his arms stretched out straight in front of him barely reaching the keyboard, and his head aimed straight at the ceiling, where he seemed to find the notes he was playing. He found the right ones and time stopped for the duration. 

That sense of time standing still is, for me, the practical definition of “transcendence,” the sense of being pulled out of conventional reality and given a glimpse of something even more real. 

One goes through a lot of perfectly decent if unexceptional concerts waiting, hoping each time for such a performance — one that makes time stand still and matches the notes of the music to the interior needs of the listener — the music and the hearer become a single event and you feel to yourself, “This is me, this is the mirror of my soul.” 

Of course, when you have an experience like that concert, the cause is not simply the performance or the music. The listener must be receptive. It is a two-part event: the message and the addressee. Perhaps others in the audience did not dissolve in rapture; and I’m sure there have been concerts I sat through inert during which other audience members wept. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

But not the way it is usually meant: For most, the cliche simply means de gustibus non est desputandum — all a matter of taste. But that is not it, at all. Beauty of the kind I’m writing of is not something solid and unchanging in the music or the artwork or poem — or in the green forest or towering thunderhead. Beauty is an event, not a thing. A verb, not a noun.   

Beauty is your active participation in the perception of the things of this world. The music is capable of being felt as beautiful and we are capable of perceiving that as beauty. But the two things are one and come together in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. Unless they arrive at the same moment, there is no beauty. To become part of the event, you must be awake, aware, alive. You must see or hear of feel more intensely than you do in the ordinary world of driving your car or tying your shoelaces. In such moments, the world becomes transfigured. 

I can picture the north rose window at Chartres cathedral in France. There are three such windows, but the one at the north corner of the building is the one that rivets my attention each time I visit.

It is the north window that moves me, in part because it moves, itself. This is an illusion, of course, but its designer was one of the geniuses of his age, able to create that illusion with static stone and glass. Each of these roses are built of circles of circles, building from a central core, and radiating out, like choirs of angels surrounding Providence. But in the north window, the panels dance.

It may be hard to see this in a reproduction, like the one here, but there is a ring of squares and diamond-shapes that form one of the rings, and it is nearly impossible to see these alternating squares and diamonds as anything but tumbling shapes, dancing around the center.

The north rose window of Chartres cathedral is — I have said many times — the single most beautiful human-created entity I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a gob-lot of iconic art works. It brings me to tears each time I am in its presence, and I feel the need to return to it, a feeling very kin to love.

I know a lot of hoo-haw gets ascribed to art. People make great claims for art, only some of which can be supported. But I believe, from my own experience, that art can make you more sensitive to the world around you, to prompt you to see again those things you have become inured to through over-exposure and turned to the ash of everyday-ness. As I have also said, every bush is the burning bush, we just can no longer see it. Seeing it is the epiphany, the moment the world shifts and you see the periphery become the center. When you open those gates in your chest, and let the world in, it becomes intensely beautiful and makes you understand, as William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Each time I visit Chartres, I sit on the church chair in the south transept and look back at the north, for 20 minutes at a time, maybe a half-hour, staring, with tears streaming down my cheeks. This is visionary art, and you don’t have to believe in the dogma to understand the metaphor: This is the Great Mystery. The magnum misterium. You could be looking at photographs from the Hubble telescope. You could be looking at the visions of a peyote dream. You could be looking at the eye of god.

It is not only in art that these things happen. In 1974, my second unofficial wife and I took a trip to Port Jervis,  N.Y., where my aunt had a trailer on the Delaware River. We vacationed and lounged. There, I had one of those epiphanies — reached a state of grace, an esthetic perfection that has never left me.

In its northern parts, the Delaware is not much of a river; it is just a broad shallow stony-bottomed stream with a sandy bluff on one shore or the other, depending which way the riverbed turns. But along the roadsides, and in every abandoned field, the bobbing orange heads of black-eyed Susans mixed with the midnight blue of ironweed. Spikes of mullein drove upward and stands of Joe Pye weed grew to four feet high.

There is something different about the fall wildflowers, something weedier, something more insistent. Their vegetable smells and sticky white sap are less immediately pretty, but they have more character: They are grownup. Perhaps, too, it is the drier air of autumn, the mixed stands of plants, blending goldenrod with Queen Anne’s lace, bull thistle and hawkweed in a Pointillist stew of color.

Anyway, that’s how it seemed as we drove by the railroad yard in Port Jervis, at the point New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all meet. The old yard, anchored by an abandoned turntable and roundhouse, was completely grown over in asters. There were millions of them in the open acres of the yard, each with its yellow disk surrounded by blue ray flowers. Intermixed were all the other fall flowers: the yarrow, boneset, coneflowers and the chicory left over from midsummer.

And in the weedy field, even the spring flowers were represented, not by their blossoms, but by their fruits: the burrs; seedpods; milkweed down; and nightshade berries. For me, it was one of those moments when clocks stopped and the impression burned into my mind as if by aqua fortis on a copper etching plate. That eternal moment has never left me. At times when the day has been roiled and I have trouble getting to sleep, I can recall that scene and let the rancor drain away. 

Beauty of the third sort, of the kind I mean, is visionary. It penetrates like the angel’s arrow into Saint Teresa. It is not a matter of appreciation, as in “I like this painting,” but rather, of turning your mental innards inside-out. You see a vastness inside yourself that is the image of the vastness outside — the two become indistinguishable: the event and its image in the mirror. 

It doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen to everyone. Those bound up in the bustle of the everyday, of the making of fortune, the vying for position, or those in fear of genocide or famine who cannot waste the time on such things, it is possible they are unable to open their chests up to the incoming. But even they, at times, will be dumbstruck by a bolt they didn’t expect and recognize the transcendent. 

Part 3 to follow

It is plopped down in front of you and you poke it and prod it and try to figure out what it is. If it is something very new or very different, it may take more poking than usual, and you may very well come up with the wrong answer. 

This is what it is to be a critic — a real critic, I mean, not one of those Yelp scribblers, or self-certain mandarins with nothing more to offer but thumbs turned skyward or hell-ward. 

I was a critic for 25 years for a major daily newspaper (The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz.), and I always thought of my job as being a first reader, or first seer, or first listener — a pioneer trying to make sense of something before any sort of consensus has been reached. It is a risky thing to do — to proffer an opinion before you have anyone watching your back. 

When conductor Pierre Boulez first came out with his version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1976, he played as if it were chamber music, it was such a different conception of the music that many critics first assumed it was a failed attempt to make the grand, Romantic mytho-philosophical monster it had always been taken to be. The BBC criticized the conductor’s “ruthless tempi” and “lack of expressiveness.” 

Consensus has now realized it was a brilliant re-thinking of the way the music could make sense. The clarity he brought to the muck (beautiful muck), was transcendent in its own way. Later criticism decided instead that “Wagner’s music doesn’t have to be murky to be metaphysical or massive to be overwhelmingly moving and Boulez gets playing from the too-often turgid Bayreuth Festival Orchestra that makes the music crackle and blaze with musical and dramatic meaning.”

Being a first listener is always risky. You may think something a failure because it doesn’t do what it has done before, failing to hear that it is doing something new brilliantly. 

When the Boulez Ring was new, the critics poked and prodded to see if it was alive. Now, we know not only that it was alive, but that it was a harbinger of a new way of playing classical music that has taken over the business. Out with the Furtwängler, in with the John Eliot Gardiner. Lean and mean drove out lush and weighty. 

I am reminded of this because I have just been confronted by a new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations under the fingers of Chinese Wunderklaviermeister Lang Lang. Critical reaction has been all over the place, from deciding it was “the greatest version since Glenn Gould” to complaining that it sounded like a talented conservatory student sight reading. 

And I see what each reaction means: They parallel my own thoughts. Is this a brilliant rethinking, or is this a flaming dumpster fire? 

Mr. Lang, or if I may be so familiar as to call him by his first name, Lang, has always split opinions. Sometimes it is hard to bust through his relentless self-promotion — the kind of commercial huckstering usually identified with charlatans and snake oil salesmen — and then there are his stage antics, eyes closed in thesbian rapture, rolling his head back and forth in a way to make Leonard Bernstein seem like a mechanical clock. How can you take him seriously? 

And yet, there is often magic in his playing. I have heard him live several times, and his performances varied widely, from glib to dazzling to absolutely empty. Yet, at other times, it was profoundly moving. When I heard him play the Chopin E-minor concerto, the way he played the slow movement made time stand absolutely still. It is one of the most soul-satisfying performances I have heard in a half-century of concertgoing. It probably helped that I normally close my eyes when listening to music and therefore was spared his facial contortions. God, was that moment beautiful. 

His recordings are equally all-over-the-place, with some dead-on and concentrated and others distracted and hollow. Lang is capable of so much, but only delivers intermittently. 

So I am now confronted by a Goldberg Variations unlike any I’ve heard before. Is it brilliant or dunderheaded? Is it an aberration or is it a signal that classical music culture is shifting once again? 

I’ve heard a lot of Goldbergs in my time. They were little known or played before 1955, when Glenn Gould launched them on an unsuspecting public, with a blazing performance that redefined Bach playing, clarifying the polyphonic strands and cutting down the pedal, almost mimicking the sound of a harpsichord. Since then, in the same way that no self-respecting art photographer can fail to make a photograph of a green pepper after being shown the way by Edward Weston, so no decent pianist can avoid recording a set of Goldbergs. Most of them are perfectly decent, if anonymous. 

In recent years, a few with real personality have been released. Simone Dinnerstein has her set and more recently Jeremy Denk. Some may remember the brief surfacing of a recording by João Carlos Martins that was almost as idiosyncratic as Gould, although Martins’ piano never seemed to be quite in tune. 

The work has also been transcribed for accordion, marimba, harp, hammer dulcimer, guitar, saxophone quartet, string trio, string orchestra, synthesizer, and brass quintet. I have a recording of parts of them on Japanese koto, and Yo-yo Ma recorded the Aria on his cello. Avant-gardist Uri Caine made his version updating each variations individually for a heterogeneous mixture of voices, instruments and recorded noises. I once put together a CD mixing many of these oddball transcriptions into something I called the “Goldberg Variorum” — each variation played by a different instrument or group. 

Gould recorded the Goldbergs at least four times — with untold bootlegs out there. The initial set has been reissued so many times in different albums, that it is impossible to keep count. Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva recorded them five times and Rosalyn Tureck did it seven times. 

The earliest version I could find was on Welte piano rolls (a kind of player piano) from 1928, by Rudolf Serkin. (His son, Peter, left us three versions). Since then, there have been close to 250 recordings. About 50 of those are on harpsichord. A few are the transcriptions, but almost all are on piano. 

But since Gould, most pianists have hewn to the stricture that, since they were composed for the harpsichord, they should be performed as drily as possible, and with little or — preferably — no pedal. And since the arrival of “historically informed performance practice” (fie on the miscreants, I say, fie) boatloads of pianists have done their best to erase any notion that a performer should “interpret” the score. Just the notes, ma’am. 

This has led to quite able, but faceless performances by such as Angela Hewitt, András Schiff and Murray Parahia. I don’t mean to poo-poo these recordings, They are all excellent of their kind, but they are chaste. 

And so, we come to Lang Lang’s two-disc set, taken at a rather leisurely pace, but with lots of spark and crackle in the details. He likes to thump hard on stray notes and he adds many ornaments, especially in the repeats — and not all the trills and mordents are stylistically appropriate. Extra passing tones and tons of rubato. Worse: Pedal. In modern terms, this is Bach done in “bad taste.” 

In the old days (pre-HIPP), pianists tended to play Bach on piano as if he had written for piano. They brought out tunes and backed them with accompaniment. Now, we revel in the polyphonic strands, each brought out cleanly. If you listen to pre-World War II recordings of Bach, you will hear pianists such as Edward Fischer or Wilhelm Kempff play their Bach as if he were the godfather of Chopin. 

You can hear the echoes of this Bach in the Well-Tempered Clavier of Daniel Barenboim. They are magnificently played, but purists cover their ears and bray “Nyah-nyah” to block out the sound. Yet, there is a long tradition, now largely buried, of approaching Bach’s music as a pretext for piano playing, showing off the performer’s skills and sensibilities. After all, do you go to La Boheme for the story, or to hear Pavarotti? The present orthodoxy considers this a kind of blasphemy. 

Yet, the music no longer belongs to Bach; it is ours and we can express our ownership of it any way we wish (as someone once said about modernized performances of Shakespeare, set on the moon or done with an all-female cast, “It’s OK. They haven’t destroyed the text. It is still there, unharmed.”) And no matter what you may think of Lang Lang’s performance, the text is still there. It belongs to you, too. But Bach himself is no longer here; he has no say in the matter and we are presumptuous if we claim to speak for him. 

So, maybe, after 40 years of increasing musical priggishness and the cult of “composer’s intentions” we are beginning to loosen up. After all, it is Postmodern doctrine that it is all just “text” to be worked on by each of us. 

The audience that actually cares about classical music seems divided into two unequal groups. The larger posits a Platonic ideal performance and judges each concert by how close to this ideal it reaches. Of course, each listener has his own vote for what that ideal is. But the goal is always the “perfect” realization of the score. 

But the other group seeks constantly to be surprised, to see the notes through a newer lens and have the music refreshed. “To hear it again for the first time.” They expect each concert to give them a different version even of old chestnuts. The standard issue performance bores them. 

I can give a great demonstration of the difference. When Anne-Sophie Mutter first recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Herbert von Karajan, she gave what must be the closest to the perfect ideal. Nothing out of place, everything beautiful and expressive. As if played by angels, not humans. It has remained in print since it was released in 1979. She recorded it again in 2002 with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic, in a performance much more personalized, with very different phrasings and dynamics. No longer a Platonic ideal, but much more a here-and-now. You would never confuse it with any other performance or violinist. I love it; many fans hated it. Hate, hate, hated it. 

The problem with the Platonic performance is that the ideal changes over time. Once, the perfect Beethoven was Furtwängler, then it became Szell, and after that, it became John Eliot Gardiner. Tastes change over time. 

We seem to be in another shift, giving up the impersonal historically strait-jacketed version for a reintroduction of the more individuated performance. We hear it in the recordings not just of Lang Lang, but of Mikhail Pletnev, Valery Gergiev or the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt (operating under the deceitful guise as an “original instrument” guy — but really just sui generis.)

Really, the Platonic template has been in place mostly from World War II on. Before that, performance idiosyncrasy was the norm, from Vladimir de Pachman to Willem Mengelberg. Leopold Stokowski was famous for tinkering with scores and glamming up what he was conducting. Now, having gone through that, into the Post-war standardization and then the HIPP diminution, we seem to be re-entering an era of increased personal interpretation. 

And that brings us back to Lang’s Goldbergs. If we are in the cusp of a change, we cannot really be sure where the gamepiece comes down. This new recording may indicate a reshaping of the way we play Bach, the way Gould reshaped it from 1955. Or maybe it’s just a garish one-off. 

I poke it; I prod it. I place my bet. So many of the hundreds of recordings of the Goldberg Variations are magnificently well-played and satisfying in their own way, but how many are memorable? You could replace one with another and be equally pleased, indeed not even to notice the difference. Gould was memorable: You can spot it in a crowd of hundreds. Lang Lang’s recording is the most memorable I’ve heard since then, and I’ve heard a boxload of them. It is memorable, but is it good? Will its novelty wear thin, or become the new norm? 

I am going back for a fourth dive into the new recording. Then, maybe, a fifth. Perhaps after that, I’ll have an answer.