The phenomenon named Lang Lang returned to the region over the weekend, seemingly determined to confirm conflicting viewpoints about his talent.
Those who think the pianist is an undisciplined showman with a penchant for exaggerating tempos and phrasing might have felt smugly justified Saturday at the Kennedy Center during his recital for the Washington Performing Arts Society (repeated yesterday at the Meyerhoff, presented by the Baltimore Symphony).
But those who think that Lang Lang offers equal amounts of expressive power and sensitivity, along with an uncommon richness of tone coloring, would have felt freshly confident, too.
While his playing will never appeal to everyone, it's absurd to dismiss him as insincere or somehow out of artistic bounds. Only 22, this pianist has more to say than an awful lot of pianists three or four times his age. At the very least, something interesting happens when he plays.
On Saturday, things went way beyond interesting. They were downright incendiary.
In Mozart's C major Sonata, K. 330, Lang Lang was all elegance, refinement, charm. But he did not skate blithely over the notes. There was sinew as well as color and crispness; the second movement flowed gently on a bittersweet wave.
The pianist applied an endless array of nuances, in touch and rhythm, to Chopin's B minor Sonata, creating a multi-layered drama. His willingness to linger over the Largo movement allowed him to extract the full measure of melancholy behind the notes; even when he brought the music to a near-standstill, he kept the heart racing.
In Schumann's Kinderszenen, Lang Lang revealed hints of mature worries and regrets behind the reflections on childhood. The sense of reluctant parting Lang Lang gave to the last two pieces created a remarkably poignant effect.
Rachmaninoff's familiar G minor Prelude became alternately ominous and luminous in his hands; I've never heard the work sound so vivid. Liszt's even more well-worn Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 turned into a stunning, unpredictable, even half-crazed celebration of dance, passion and virtuosity.
It doesn't just take imagination to reconsider and recharge such scores. It takes courage.