Four Pieces for Orchestra, Op.12
Piano Concerto No.2 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Lang Lang (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 3 March, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City
Cellular phones ringing during concerts is a nuisance, to say the least. The way Carnegie Hall has decided to deal with this issue also proves to be very disturbing to the concert-goer, the person who is relaxing into a seat, leaving the outside world behind, and getting into the right mood for the concert. Suddenly one is jarred by a loud phone ring, followed by a recorded announcement to turn off electronic devices (while a notice to that effect has been projected onto the back wall of the platform all along). At this concert, the Leader of the Vienna Philharmonic tuned the orchestra before this raucous intrusion. This led to a couple of awkward minutes with the orchestra sitting at the ready, but the house-lights were eventually dimmed to merciful silence, and Daniel Barenboim made his way to the podium.
Like much of Bartók’s early works, the Four Pieces for Orchestra (written in 1912 and orchestrated in 1921), are very different from each other. The first is almost Impressionistic in character, while ‘Scherzo’ pre-echoes some of the raw power of the composer’s The Miraculous Mandarin, written six years later. After a graceful ‘Intermezzo’, an expressionistic ‘Funeral March’ brings the composition full-circle by incorporating some material from the opening. A fascinating work, it has long been championed by Pierre Boulez, who gave Bartók’s Opus 12 its Carnegie Hall premiere as late as 2001. This present account, superbly played by the VPO and well conceived by Barenboim, made a further compelling case for establishing the work its place among standard 20th-century orchestral repertoire.
Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto demands a soloist with a formidable technique. Lang Lang certainly met the challenge, tossing off this challenging score with considerable bravura. However, as much as one is in awe of this achievement, there is more to this piece than serving as a vehicle for displaying a stellar technique. As program annotator Bernard Jacobson quotes, Bartók himself wrote about his (then two) piano concertos in 1937, that neither of them “is written for piano with accompaniment from an orchestra, but for piano and orchestra. In both works I wish to realize absolute equality between solo instrument and orchestra”. In this respect Lang Lang completely missed the point. Instead of engaging in a dialogue, he overpowered the orchestra to an extent that in the first movement even the brass had trouble being heard, while the woodwind virtually disappeared beneath the relentless onslaught of the piano. The beautiful playing of the muted strings in the second movement provided some temporary relief, but soon we were back to piano versus orchestra, and it was Bartók who lost out. For an unusual encore, Barenboim joined Lang Lang at the piano for the best-known Marche Militaire of Schubert.
One would expect that Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is a work within the idiomatic orbit of the Vienna Philharmonic, evoking echoes of the erstwhile Austro-Hungarian Empire with many of its elements directly or indirectly derived from folk music. The string playing was exquisite, nuanced, balanced, transparent layers of counterpoint gently superimposed upon each other at the beginning, incisive in the second movement, mysterious in the third, appropriately virtuoso in the last, a performance to be proud of. Yet, and particularly with this orchestra, one wished for slightly more Hungarian flavor, more abandon, more paprika.