Tuesday 21 April 2009

Lang Lang's LSO residence, Part I - Bartok and Harding's Bruckner

I've wanted to hear Lang Lang for a little while now. Sometime ago, I saw him on a documentary where his discussion of the opening of Beethoven's fourth piano concerto intrigued me. The more so as I then read a piece in Gramophone written, I think, by Hillary Finch, which described him as Bang Bang, without any real justification for the rudeness, and since it conflicted with what I had seen, I was curious. I must confess, however, that he was not the primary reason I booked these two concerts (that was because I wanted to hear tomorrow's performance of Mahler's first symphony). However, it seems fairly clear that the reason these have sold out is the pianist, not least from the frantic snapping of pictures as he came on stage (I say sold out, though from where I was sitting, there were a noticeable number of empty seats, doubtless people who were unable to make it).

The first half of the concert was occupied by Bartok's second piano concerto. Lang Lang's playing was pretty percussive, but given the composer and the work, this seemed entirely appropriate (indeed, it is difficult to judge whether he really is a thumper; it would be nice to hear him in, say, a Mozart concerto as well). However, he did display delicacy when called for, especially in the slow movement. There was also a wonderful dramatic flair to his playing. Providing accompaniment, the London Symphony Orchestra and Harding were on superb form. I've had my doubts based on earlier concerts this season about whether they are a good fit, whether there is a lack of chemistry between them. There was no evidence of that in the Bartok and they gave quite the best performance I've heard from them this season. The quiet playing by the strings was especially impressive, as was the work of timpanist Nigel Thomas. The only flaw was that, once again, I've managed to book all my LSO concerts not on keyboard side (note to self, engage brain when booking next year's tickets).

After the interval it was the turn of Anton Bruckner and his fifth symphony. One or two of those there just for Lang Lang clearly hadn't known what they were letting themselves in for as several left after the first movement (I happen to think this is pretty rude unless a performance is truly dire, and this certainly wasn't - I've never done it). They were very much in a minority though, as the brief round of applause that followed the first movement attested. It was a solid reading, if not so fine as the Bartok (and there where ghosts of the aforementioned lack of chemistry). There were times when Harding was clearly trying to bring out one detail or other (especially from the winds) but didn't quite balance the rest of the ensemble so that it could be heard properly in the balcony; how much of the blame the Barbican's tricky acoustic deserves here is worth asking. Harding is to be congratulated for not falling into the Bruckner trap of everything becoming samey, on the other hand, at times it did not have quite the flow that the best interpreters bring. The slow movement was beautiful, and, once again, the LSO's strings were the stars of the work but the brass could have been crisper. The scherzo could have been more visceral though. The finale built to a glorious Brucknerian climax, if a little loud, but at that point I don't mind.

Tonight's second instalment comprises Tan Dun's Internet Symphony (written for the Youtube Symphony Orchestra) and piano concerto, with the composer himself conducting. After the interval comes Mahler's first symphony. I can't wait.

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