Lang Lang Tippett Piano Concerto

Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles (Suite in D)
Piano Concerto
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Lang Lang (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 March, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The London Symphony Orchestra’s two-concert Tippett/Beethoven series came to an all-too-premature end with a programme that appeared unpromising but was a striking success in performance. Were Tippett’s Suite in D known thus rather than by its more usual title, it might be regarded as more than merely an occasional piece. Sir Colin Davis made a fine recording in 1975, and here showed that he had lost none of his sympathy for music which – composed as intensive work on The Midsummer Marriage was about to commence – demonstrates Tippett’s compositional breadth in no uncertain terms.

Especially successful was the swiftness with which Davis moved from one movement to the next, affording the work a continuity which makes it feel more expansive than it actually is. Some lovely woodwind playing in the ‘Berceuse’ and the ‘Carol’ helped make the most of their respective pathos and wistfulness, while the robust vigour of the outer movements is a fair reminder that, for all the modesty of its formal dimensions, this is no mean ‘concerto for orchestra’ in terms of the virtuosity required of the players.

If Tippett’s Piano Concerto is also heard far less often than its musical merits warrant, this is no doubt due to the unorthodox nature of a solo part which, demanding in its own right, only makes its fullest impression when absorbed into the translucent and intricate orchestral writing. It says much for Lang Lang – whose performances of otherwise more standard repertoire have left a decidedly mixed impression – that, having learnt the work specifically for this occasion, he entered into the spirit of the concerto with thoughtfulness, sensitivity and not a little confidence.

True, there was a tendency to linger over detail and to lose the underlying shape of phrases that, in the first movement at least, made it difficult for even so experienced a Tippett conductor as Davis to keep the larger formal outline in focus. Yet the poise with which such passages as the intensifying build-up to the development and the lead back into the recapitulation were articulated confirmed that this was no tentative run-through, while the rapt poetry drawn from the luminous textures of the Adagio suggested a future Scriabin or Medtner interpreter of distinction. If the finale was too straitjacketed in rhythmic profile (and the important contribution from the horns a little approximate), it capped the performance in ebullient fashion – with the dovetailing of celesta and piano exquisitely nuanced. One hopes that Lang Lang will pursue his association with a work sorely in need of new champions.

So, too – for very different reasons – is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a work so laden with cultural baggage as to be almost impossible to make convincing today. If hardly revelatory, either in execution or as an interpretation, Davis’s was a satisfying one. Any tendency to portentousness is confined to such details as the opening motif’s rhythmic detachment from the main body of the first movement – which otherwise proceeded in a serious but never hectoring manner, with the fathomless oboe solo near the onset of the reprise perfectly judged as to formal emphasis. With its unlikely but distinctive synthesis of sonata, rondo and variation procedures, the Andante can be difficult to make cohere, but Davis brought out an engaging humour to balance the heroic gestures, and ensured that the tutti statement of the first theme was demonstrably the formal and emotional apex of the movement.

As might have been expected, the still-controversial repeat of scherzo and trio was dispensed with – Davis pointing up their respectively ominous and incisive demeanour with evident conviction. A pity that the breathlessly intense link into the finale was not ideally pianissimo, and was brought up by an over-emphatic ritardando, as the tempo for the movement as a whole allowed full rein to its joyous heroism – as well as reminding one how provocative, even dangerous such uninhibited expression must have seemed in the decades following its premiere. The mid-point recall of the scherzo duly made its speculative point, and the C major reiterations of the coda squared the formal circle without overkill. That Davis gave his all throughout was not lost on the audience, which greeted this performance with a response that confirmed the enduring significance of music nearing the start of its third century of existence.

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