Lang Lang Beethoven Piano Concerto Cycle at Royal Albert Hall with Philharmonia Orchestra & Esa-Pekka Salonen – 1 [Concertos 1 & 4]

Overture Namensfeier, Op.115
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Lang Lang (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 20 March, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Lang Lang. Photograph: Felix BroedeLang Lang is now 29, he is a free-ranging ambassador for the cause of accessibility to classical music, and he has inspired thousands of young people to take up the piano. His publicity machine has toned down his image – a bit – to hint at sleek maturity, and the respectably full Royal Albert Hall for the first concert – conventionally staged with no amplification or huge video screens (unlike in a previous RAH recital) – in his Beethoven concerto ‘residency’ bore fairly fervent witness to his mysterious connection with an audience that puts its trust in him, rather than any other pianist, to make classical music somehow OK – which it never wasn’t. Lang Lang must be held up as the holy grail of marketing, which he both subverts and lives up to. Sometimes he is a blast of fresh air – Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto comes to mind; sometimes he is wayward and self-indulgent, as he was in this brace of Beethoven concertos, in which he seemed to be on the horns of a recreation/reinvention dilemma.

In the First Concerto, after a gift of a lightly military orchestral opening from the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lang Lang made his first entry a model of poise, almost self-effacement. But after that initial ’golly’ moment, he went on to serve up his familiar routine of surprising accents, cute phrasing and a control of texture and volume that can sound exaggerated and arbitrary – as though someone is fiddling with a graphic equaliser. His playing is peer-less, the range of touch and attack that he has developed over the years phenomenal, but it’s his showmanship that turns people on (or off). He sustains his repertoire of romantic gestures and extravagant postures (it‘s a real relief on the few occasions when he plays from a score) but they pick away at the music to mixed effect; Lang Lang in full-on, head-tossing, arms-waving exuberance mode is very much a case of the medium being the message. Salonen remained a discreet, almost austere presence, restraining enough to make Lang Lang’s launch into the cadenza (the longest – seven minutes – of the three Beethoven supplied for this concerto) seem like a bid for freedom, and, bless him, he took its display potential to extremes of parody, and it lacked nothing in entertainment value. The slow movement was stretched out massively in a parade of tweaks and teasing, with some oddly prosaic phrasing; the closing pages of the finale, though, were infectiously high-spirited, with soloist, conductor and orchestra singing from the same hymn sheet.

The welter of look-at-me detail had the effect of making this good-humoured concerto seem long, in an evening, that, with a slightly late start, a neutral, poker-faced account of the Namensfeier Overture, applause between movements and an extended interval, seemed unnaturally distended – and the Fourth Concerto continued the trend. Lang Lang and Salonen provided a superb start, which the pianist didn’t follow up on. The overall effect was like a botched restoration of an old master. The famous dialogue between soloist and orchestra in the slow movement was a hugely overwrought trial by pianissimo, and extremely mannered, and that odd passage of piano hysteria just before the finale was predictably milked for all it was worth. There was muted applause at the end and a rather perfunctory standing ovation – perhaps his audience is getting the point.

  • Cycle continues on 21st and 23rd
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

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