Lang Lang (Less Less)

The Fairy’s Kiss – Divertimento
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.4 in C – Revised Version, Op.112

Lang Lang (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 June, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This must go down as one of the most unnecessary encores of the season. Not quite as horrendous as Kissin’s extras after his Chopin First Concerto with the Bavarian State Orchestra and Zubin Mehta on 9 September 1999 at the Proms – all before the orchestra was due to play Bruckner 8 (how insensitive and arrogant can anyone get?) – but still hopelessly unnecessary.

Lang Lang is still in his early 20s, but one wishes he had Pollini’s strength of personality to take himself away from his high-profile concert-giving to contemplate the meaning of music. Pollini did exactly this. I had spent the day of this LPO concert absorbed in his new DG recording of Beethoven’s Op.10 sonatas and the Pathétique. To go from such lucid playing, with a clear (if often startling) logic that heightens one’s appreciation of the composer, to the insipid interpretation of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto offered by Lang Lang was a severe disappointment.

That’s not to say Lang Lang is not engaging to watch or that he has no rapport with his accompanists. He obviously loves playing, and in his constant movement when not playing suggests he wants to be a conductor; and it’s not that he isn’t pleasantly dextrous at the keyboard – but it all seems to be without any purpose. I was left dispirited and thoroughly bored. For the most part a good house cheered him to the rafters, including a student group in the choir seats who were on their feet in a flash at the end (having chatted through the earlier Stravinsky – thankfully they didn’t return for the Prokofiev). It was such reaction that led to the inevitable encore, Träumerei from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which was slowed to such a pace that its repeated upward and downward trajectories became insufferable. Lang Lang got even slower, eventually leaning back on the final chord, slowly raising his fingers off the keyboard and, open-mouthed, stared upwards.

Extraordinarily, he held the audience’s attention, but perhaps – like me – they had given up any hope of musicality.

The Russian works that opened and closed this concert were much more rewarding. Vladimir Jurowski, fresh from his period-instrument exigencies at Glyndebourne looked lean and incredibly youthful (his beard has gone and his hair is less sculpted than his photograph). He delivered the Stravinsky with genuine affection and the Prokofiev with growing power, although the start of the latter seemed ill-fitting, as if Lang Lang’s torpor had spread throughout the orchestra during the interval.

Stravinsky’s homage to Tchaikovsky – so effortlessly full of wonderful tunes – was matched by Prokofiev’s own ‘borrowings’ from his Prodigal Son ballet in his Fourth Symphony, here heard in Prokofiev’s expanded revision (the original is Op.47). After the unsettled start (a bizarre extra half-beat quip from Jurowski’s baton causing ensemble problems), the orchestra settled, especially in the sumptuously lyrical slow movement, before revelling in the various marches that comprise the finale. The London Philharmonic ended the season on a high (and loud) note, supplanting the morbid stasis that had characterised the Beethoven.

Jurowski, as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, returns for three concerts next season both opening and conducts two at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Lang Lang gives his first Royal Festival Hall recital as part of the International Piano Series on 23 January when, along with Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Liszt, will be ‘his’ Träumerei again in a complete performance of Kinderszenen. You have been warned.

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