The superstar pianist Lang Lang has played in the great concert halls of the world, at Buckingham Palace and an Olympic opening ceremony, but has never before had to compete with a recorded announcement from station security warning that bag thieves were operating in the area.
So it was on Friday, however, when the man routinely described as the greatest pianist alive found himself between some escalators, a bureau de change and a branch of Reiss, performing on an upright piano to a small crowd of startled travellers at St Pancras station in London.
Sophia Effinger, a 23-year-old law student from Germany, had just stepped off the Eurostar when she walked straight into the throng. “That was Lang Lang,” she said, gesturing over her shoulder in some bewilderment as the musician was ushered away after his performance.
“I didn’t expect that to be the first thing I saw on my trip to London.”
After a burst of Rimsky-Korsakov’s showstopper the Flight of the Bumblebee – his hands a blur across the keys as dozens craned around the piano holding up their phones – the 40-year-old Chinese musician told the crowd he had been nervous about his first ever station performance.
The evening before he flew to London, he said, he had considered practising the piece on an instrument at Newark airport. “But I said, I really can’t do that because I need to do the premiere here.”
He followed with part of Franz List’s Liebesträume, his eyes closed in concentration amid the station bustle, before being joined by his wife, the German-Korean pianist Gina Alice Redlinger, for a duet of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No 5.
Lang Lang has become familiar with the British love of railway station pianos through his role as a judge on the Channel 4 programme The Piano, which has proved an unexpected hit with critics and viewers and was described by the Guardian as “the most uplifting TV talent show ever”.
Official viewing figures provided from the agency Digital-i show the
programme, from the same production stable as The Great British Bake Off and sharing much of its feelgood sentiment, was consistently the broadcaster’s top rated show on the evening of transmission attracting around 1.7 million viewers, with many more sharing viral clips.
The finale of the programme, to be broadcast on Wednesday, will feature amateur pianists including a rapper from the Isle of Wight, a young man who turned to the piano after the suicide of his father and a visually impaired 13-year-old who learned to play with her hands resting on those of her teacher.
Selected by Lang Lang and fellow judge, the pop singer Mika, on the strength of their performances on station pianos across the country, they were invited to join the two professional musicians at a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.
Performing with the great symphony orchestras of the world was one thing, Lang Lang told the Guardian after his performance, but playing in the station had been “special”.
“I didn’t expect the train announcements, and also when the train stops, you can hear the sound, ssssss,” he said.
Having met some sniffiness over his own attempts to popularise piano music, which include performing with Metallica, Pharrell Williams and Gangnam Style singer Psy, he said his aim was to “see how far [piano music] can reach”.
“I think this brings music very close to the people. In a concert hall it is great, but sometimes you don’t get a new audience.”
People were sometimes afraid of classical music, he said, which was why as well as Rachmaninoff and Chopin the programme had embraced performers playing Elton John, Harry Styles and their own compositions.
“So in a way this is really opening the boundaries. To show that piano is not just one dimension – it is a little universe.”
For some of those present, the power of his impromptu performance was clear. Christine Champion, waiting for a train to St Albans ahead of a weekend with a friend, had taken a seat as the crowd dispersed.
As she spoke, her glasses steamed up with emotion. “I have often over the years, seen ordinary people playing the pianos in stations, and it can be pretty impressive in the way it touches a chord.”
What had struck her about Lang Lang, she said, was “his total immersion in his expression, how he leaned into the music. I found it quite emotionally engaging. It was a wonderful shared diversion.”