New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert in London – Feria & Prokofiev 5 – Lang Lang plays Bartók

Piano Concerto No.2
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Lang Lang (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 18 February, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was a long but rewarding concert (the last of four by the New York Philharmonic at the Barbican Hall, this one preceded by a matinee “Young People’s Concert”) – or at least the two works that bookended the evening were. Magnus Lindberg (born 1958) is a major composer and currently the New York Philharmonic’s Composer-in-Residence. Feria (Spanish for “outdoor festival”), written between 1995 and 1997 is remarkable. There is something about hearing contemporary music played with such excellence – such as the trumpet fanfares heard at the opening (which recur), performed with such clarity and cleanness of attack.

Lindberg studied with Paavo Heininen (principally) and Einojuhani Rautavaara. There seemed a distinctly Schoenbergian turn to some elements – the oboe solo near the beginning, for example. And, like Schoenberg in Pelleas und Melisande mode, Lindberg can find positively luscious sonorities. Yet Lindberg’s more outgoing, visceral side points back to the uncompromising sonic firewalls of Varèse. The string sections excelled, especially in the glacial, massive chords. Lindberg also includes a quotation from Monteverdi (from Lasciatemi morire) which emerges as a curiously fascinating sonic marker; the work ends radiantly. A superb piece – and it is difficult to imagine a finer account of it.

Feria lasts around 20 minutes but felt much shorter. Rarely though has Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto been so undersold; rarely has it felt longer. Lang Lang was less itinerant than usual – perhaps it was his reading the music at the same time as playing the piano that did it. When I first heard him, many years ago at the Wigmore Hall, he struck me as a major talent. Yet hype and hero-worship has spoilt much. At no point did Lang Lang seem attuned to Bartók’s music, so we were left to appreciate Alan Gilbert’s superb pointing of the orchestral writing, not least the frozen strings of the central Adagio. Lang Lang’s sound is also problematic, lacking depth, and that aspect was woefully evident here. He remains an incomplete player, and given the adulation heaped upon him, I doubt there is any impetus for him to progress. There was, inevitably, an encore – Liszt’s La campanella. That Lang Lang’s tissue-thin glitz relegated Liszt to fluff because of immaturity and ego is unforgivable.

And so to a glorious performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Antiphonally-placed violins aided textural transparency in the most intelligent and involving performance of this work I have heard in a concert. The first movement (like so many Soviet symphonies, moderately paced), was superbly handled by Gilbert. The winds at the opening were glorious; the brass carried raw power. The tightness of ensemble was a wonder to hear, yet the greatest achievement was Gilbert’s measure of this movement, both in the unhurried pacing but also in terms of sheer structural grasp. The technical challenges of the second movement (Prokofiev on delightfully spiky form) were as nothing to the New Yorkers, who revelled in their virtuosity while at the same time doing the music justice. The Adagio was blessed with a marvellous lyric impulse, its blossoming perfectly judged. Only the finale brought some element of disappointment, its playfulness a little underplayed; however, the closing excitement was enough to set the seal on a memorable performance.

For an encore, the Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein, a former music director of the Philharmonic. Great fun was had by all, the lyrical counter-theme, when played as suavely as this, impossible to get out of one’s head!

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