Lang Lang Beethoven Piano Concerto Cycle at Royal Albert Hall with Philharmonia Orchestra & Esa-Pekka Salonen – 2 [Concertos 2 & 3]

Overture, Leonore No.2, Op.72a
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37

Lang Lang (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 21 March, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Lang Lang. Photograph: Felix BroedeFilling the cavernous Royal Albert Hall to capacity for a ‘serious’ classical concert outside of the BBC Proms season is a remarkable achievement – so Lang Lang must be doing something right. His young personable appeal and virtuosic dynamism has earned him an army of loyal followers. His reputation rests largely on flashy Liszt and Chopin; this is his first complete cycle of Beethoven concertos in the UK.

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingBefore the pianist’s appearance, Esa-Pekka Salonen set out his Beethovenian stall with a serious, weighty account of the second of the Leonora overtures to match the rich sonority he draws from the Philharmonia Orchestra, and making effective use of the venue: impressively unanimous shock-chords were followed by dramatically reverberant pauses, and the RAH gallery is ideally suited for the off-stage trumpet calls.

Even without the additional gravitas of punchy brass, however, the lush orchestral sound was too heavy for the delicate frame of the Second Piano Concerto. Lang Lang’s contribution was forthright and dazzling, alternating moments of supreme fluidity and silky smoothness with ugly, choppy phrasing and crude accentuation. It could possibly be argued that this cavalier approach has a kind of authenticity – Beethoven, after all, was famously provocative in his attempts to shock. But Lang Lang’s quirkiness too often simply sounds contrived. The second movement, treated as a prototype for the soft-grained romance of the Adagio of the ‘Emperor’, was certainly beautiful, and persuasive, but the mirthless finale lacked spontaneous, Haydnesque ebullience.

Conductor and soloist were more at home in the turbulent world of the C minor Piano Concerto, the Philharmonia responding with powerful playing that maintained impressive clarity. There was much else to admire from Lang Lang’s note-perfect showmanship, but overall the performance was neither buoyant nor cohesive enough. It is hard not to appreciate the pianist’s flair, but more often than not his idiosyncrasies seem self-serving rather than dedicated towards a greater understanding of Beethoven.

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