La forza del destino – Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
El sombrero de tres picos – Suite No.2
Capriccio espagnol, Op.34
Valentina Lisitsa (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alan Sanders
Reviewed: 18 January, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Xian Zhang is no stranger to London audiences or orchestral players, since her association with the LSO goes back to 2005 and she has conducted two English National Opera productions. Since 2009 she has been Music Director of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi and in 2013 led it in a BBC Proms programme which included Verdi arias with Joseph Calleja and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony.
She also celebrated the Verdi bicentenary of that year by conducting Washington National Opera’s production of La forza del destino. So it was entirely appropriate that she should open this concert with its Overture – how pleasing it is, incidentally, to have a throwback to the old format of starting a programme with such a beast. Those audience members who hadn’t heard Zhang before may have been momentarily disconcerted to see this diminutive Chinese lady, dressed in a severely unfeminine black suit, dash on to the platform. But moments later the LSO brass responded to her immediately electric communication with knife-edged precision in the six notes that begin the piece. This was followed by an urgently executed string reply and we knew at once that we were in good hands. Zhang’s conducting was intensely dramatic and appealingly lyrical in turn, and her intense rapport with the LSO was clear enough.
The LSO gave Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto last season with Yuja Wang as soloist. On this occasion the pianist was the Ukrainian-born Valentina Lisitsa, famous her widely viewed YouTube channel. Her account of the opening Andantino of this four-movement Concerto was more lyrical than that of Yuja Wang, more yielding perhaps, more improvisatory, and this approach had its own appeal. But it soon became clear, especially in the following Scherzo that her technique was much less secure than that of Yuja Wang. This inevitably made for a less than exhilarating performance as a whole, and in the final Allegro tempesto there were times when Zhang’s precise direction and the LSO’s virtuosic response seemed to be the focus rather than the playing of the soloist.
As is the case with overtures, orchestral showpieces tend to be overlooked in programmes these days. So it was particularly pleasing, after the toughness of the Prokofiev, to hear the brilliantly orchestrated Falla and Rimsky pieces. She made the first Falla dance float delightfully into existence and all its natural, slightly wistful charm was conveyed. The proud Spanish flavour of the ‘Miller’s Dance’ was brilliantly brought out, and the final ‘Jota’ sparkled with high spirits and a kind of contradictory controlled abandon that only Spanish conductors can usually evoke.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian evocation of Spain was also vividly brought to life. Here it was noticeable that Zhang stood by with a smile and gave the LSO players complete freedom in their solo passages; and the whole was imbued with infectious good humour as well as effortless virtuosity. Let’s have more of Xian Zhang in London concert life. She is a real breath of fresh air.