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

König Stephan, Op.117 – Overture
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)

Lang Lang (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 23 March, 2012
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Esa-Pekka Salonen. Photograph: Nicho SödlingIt’s a measure of Lang Lang’s following that this Beethoven piano concerto cycle is in the Royal Albert Hall – maximum audience space. The concert (the last of the three) appeared sold out, the crowd behaving quite unlike a Philharmonia Orchestra Royal Festival Hall audience (applause between each movement of both the symphony and the concerto, unauthorised cameras keeping the ushers fit…).

It is only fair to give the bulk of this review to the concert’s first half, for although this is Lang Lang’s first Beethoven cycle in London and he is (as the blurb keeps reminding us) a global superstar – it’s obvious that 99 per cent of the audience came to see him – the fact is that the real musical quality came in the first half. The rarely-performed Overture to King Stephen opened the concert. The contrast between the trumpet and horn exchange and gently chugging woodwind was beautifully drawn. The faster section was lively and fresh with no sense of dragging and was imbued with plenty of character.

Esa-Pekka Salonen is not particularly known for his Beethoven, but he’s also a composer and brings a creator’s eye-view to scores, marrying a superb ear for detail with true structural grasp. The perfectly judged octaves of the opening of the Fourth Symphony boded well, and the performance as a whole did not disappoint. The rock-solid rhythm of the Adagio introduction meant silences were given full dramatic worth leading to an Allegro that was closer to a presto, but none the worse for it. This was properly exciting playing with nothing gimmicky or point-making. Salonen’s refusal to slow down for lyrical sections brought unity – a beating heart kept under control. Hard sticks for the timpani and valve-less trumpets (modern horns though) prevented anything sounding over-warm. The tempo for the Adagio was fluent, the playing stylish, with moments of great delicacy (perhaps the clarinet solos could have been more magical though); delicacy, again, made the scherzo (described as a Minuet) memorable, while the fast and furious finale held more fire than this symphony is generally accorded, and with fine effect. Tutti chords like slashes (as Salonen’s baton painted them, and as we heard them) were a highpoint. A wonderful performance that would have benefitted from silence, not applause, between movements.

Lang Lang. Photograph: Felix BroedeA long interval (and we’d started late, too) took us to the ‘Emperor’, and a contrast of opposites, with enough point-making to leave no doubt that this was all about Lang Lang, Beethoven coming in a poor second. There was no suggestion that the pianist was at the service of the music; quite the reverse. Although Lang Lang’s projection was well judged, the recurring trait of him breaking his tone defaced the surface of Beethoven’s music (not to mention its soul). Chords were hit rather than being made strong. Worse, Lang Lang’s insistence on concentrating on the moment to the detriment of the ongoing musical argument quickly grated. Gorgeous, melting sound constantly rubbed against willfulness, some interpretative decisions simply nonsensical. Technically Lang Lang has no problems, but his mismanagement of structure makes the music emotionally meaningless. One did not encounter Beethoven here. The slow movement’s tempo was well judged (it flowed), but Lang Lang’s habit of unmusically accenting notes so they interrupt the phrase meant any intimacy the Philharmonia Orchestra conjured was immediately dissipated. Lang Lang’s most heinous sin was to rob the transition to the finale (some of the most beautiful, held-breath music ever composed) of any magic. At least the last movement had energy and effective pedal-free sections. There were a couple of Liszt encores – a Romance and a Consolation – but this was a third-class performance of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto.

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