Prom 43: 22nd August 2001

Photograph of Lang Lang

Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor
Symphony No.1 in G Minor (Winter Daydreams)

Lang Lang (piano)
St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov

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Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 22 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

What do you think of when regarding an Eastern European orchestra? Passion, commitment, rawness and rhythmic energy; drama rather than smoothness, a certain grainy quality of string tone and brashness of brass; above all, unashamed playing from the heart. You would not have been wrong on last night’s evidence.

Two works from the mainstream of Russian repertoire, from opposite ends of the popularity spectrum. The Rachmaninov has received thirty-three previous Prom performances, the Tchaikovsky just three. And no orchestra could have better cultural credentials to present this programme; the St Petersburg Philharmonic, in its previous incarnation, was Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic.

In my (ethnically authentic) experience, it is a fallacy that Chinese people are inscrutable. Rather, they are inclined to wear their hearts on their sleeves; Lang Lang, the nineteen-year-old Chinese pianist now studying with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute, did just that – in platform manner as well as interpretation. Sadly, for large portions of the first movement, this emotionalism seemed to confine him in a ’summer daydream’, from which orchestral solos made largely ineffective attempts to rouse him. The concerto seemed for Lang Lang to be a continuous indulgent meditation; thus, nothing was more beautiful in the whole first movement than its very opening – he had licence to phrase the fundamental theme of the work, and on its return, as if a precious jewel, with a characteristically engaging treble tone.

Lang Lang was always technically fluent, and he clearly feels this music deeply, but he appeared to inhabit a different mental world from the orchestra. If the programme notes spoke of “epic romanticism,” it seemed that orchestra and soloist had agreed to divide up these qualities between them, the orchestra taking “epic” and Lang Lang “romantic”. To make things worse, his first movement musings took place at a significantly lower volume than the Philharmonic’s heroism (something Telarc’s forthcoming live recording will presumably correct) – not once during the movement did he stamp his authority on the performance.

The second movement improved – the balance significantly better – with more engaging dialogue between the still-tranquil soloist and the emotional struggle in the orchestral parts. The wild upsurges in the strings near the beginning, and later between violins and piano, were notable – in this context the serenity of the piano’s phrasal resolution made greater sense. With the peroration that ended the movement, one sensed a heightening of emotional tension, and a better bond between soloist and orchestra.

Lang Lang rose to the finale’s challenge, fed by the rhythmic drive of the orchestra. He found a greater emotional depth, the contrast with the melting second subject (where he was of course very much at home) seemed organic, not contingent; at the last he did make the piece his own. He also offered an encore, a transcription of a Chinese folk-song, “Mu Hang River”, well suited to his propensity for Impressionism. On this evidence, we can look forward to his interpretation of Debussy; it is far too early to speculate what new insights he might bring to piano repertoire.

In Tchaikovsky, Temirkanov and the SPPO brought an absolute consistency of interpretation, all the more appropriate for a work whose Russian discursiveness has not found such ready acceptance from audiences as the more European later symphonies.

Temirkanov set out his stall immediately – the “Daydreams of a winter journey” of the first movement combined a portrayal of the infinite that at the same time, in its lightness and translucent textures, clearly showed Tchaikovsky’s lifelong admiration for Mozart. From the reticent opening to the precise conclusion, Temirkanov brought out both the sweetness and the strength in the music, the delicacy of the woodwind writing, the lavish and rhapsodic second subject; a relaxed view, always with an active and structuring rhythmic pulse, always passionate, always controlled.

The slow movement, “Land of Gloom, Land of Mists”, was exemplary. From the yearning opening the organic growth of the movement out of its oboe theme was impeccably handled; there were fine contributions from the flutes and horns. The return of the string passage at the end had an inevitability that gave the movement excellent shape, and made the symphony’s habitual neglect seem unaccountable.

The scherzo was nicely balanced between dance and scenic evocation, between gravity and enthusiasm, motion and stillness (particularly the transition into the trio), the scherzo itself beautifully shaped towards a climax, the trio more affectionate. Only in the finale, where the writing is itself weaker, did Temirkanov slip. Both the slow introduction and the reprise of the same theme as the movement’s second subject came over as opaque, the music’s structure insufficiently directed; Temirkanov’s cut in the coda was regrettable.

This was a small blemish, chased away by Elgar’s Salut d’amour and ’Trepak’ from The Nutcracker.

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