Any way you cut it, a concert headlining the Chinese star pianist Lang Lang is an event. He brings so many new people to classical music, as we are recalled. His flamboyant approach has been dividing opinions from the start, but recently hopeful signs of maturity were reported too. And didn't the man himself declare in a pre-performance interview that it is not just a show? Has the showman grown into a musician then? He might have fooled you still, when he walked in a perfectly traditional outfit to his piano, greeted by a packed Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. Yet as soon as he hammered home the opening chords of Liszt's 1st piano concerto in such an attention-seeking manner, there no longer was any doubt. A sigh of grateful recognition swept through the hall and obviously many had come to witness this: Lang Lang was still his former self - at least for tonight.
Lang was out to honor "his piano hero", as the title of his newest Sony CD runs, but in fact he only came to honor himself. There was very little Liszt this evening, except in the program notes, and even less Chopin. The mood was imposed unconditionally as if destined for dummies: exaggerate everything out of proportion lest they won't get the message. We got the message loud and clear alright. Every note begging for attention, loud accents and ferocious passage work posing for heroism, a few shock rubato passages added for good measure, lyrical phrases stretched to the point of falling apart and the whole recipe spiced with the trademark histrionics - the fluttering hand gestures, a few karate chops, the smirking self-aware stares at the audience, the trance-like head tilts.
Admirers will undoubtedly point out the dazzling ease and speed with which Lang rushed through the most note-saturated passages. Technically it is very impressive indeed. But so many pianists can, and they do so with a lot more sense of control and musical instinct, creating a much subtler piano sound that tells us something about the music. Lang constantly plays to the gallery and with success, even if he is mostly on his own. That he had one of the finest ensembles in the world performing with him seemed of no consequence. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under a docile Daniel Harding was given very little space. When soloist and orchestra had to make music together, they often sounded like the old "You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to."
The following Andante spianato & Grande polonaise brillante wasn't much different. The Andante was afflicted with the sort of fake, misty-eyed romanticism a composer like Chopin can miss like the plague. Lang can play ultra-quiet, but it's just the other extreme of banging loud. Brilliance aplenty, of course, even though the polonaise limped without any heroic feel, rhythmically disjointed to the point of becoming unrecognizable. By the time Lang got there, though, the shine had long since been knocked off by his own mannerisms.
The audience still hadn't enough and called Lang back for an encore. It became a sweet rendition of Liszt's Consolation #3, or an essay on how long can you wait before hitting that last note of a phrase. A caricature, but yes, he brings a lot of new people to classical music.
Once freed from the Lang Lang presence the orchestra fully came into its own. British maestro Daniel Harding is currently Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Music Director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. A former assistant to Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado, 35-year old Harding can now be found performing with the world's major orchestras and recently made his debut with the New York Philharmonic.
Harding's rendition of Beethoven's "Eroica" sounded straightforward, lucid, without any surprises, let alone new insights. But at least he recognized he was standing in front of a fabulous ensemble, which proved in many ways the real highlight of the evening. The warmth and full-blooded presence of the antiphonally placed Concertgebouw strings blended with the ravishing timbre of the woodwinds and brass to breathtaking effect. One has to mention the first oboe and clarinet full of character, the roundness of the celli and double-basses especially striking at the beginning of the Marcia funebre, and the sheer beauty of the horns in the trio.
With such potential, it was a shame Harding didn't plumb the symphony's depths. For that he let the orchestra a bit too much on its own. Some lessons from period performance practice have clearly been integrated, either stylistically (like the incisive, clipped chords), or regarding instrumental color (as the use of hard sticks for the timpani in the scherzo). The strings might ideally have been too numerous for the wind section, but overall he kept an excellent internal balance. On the other hand (and perhaps surprisingly), Harding's tempo's were with the exception of the final movement moderate and while he has the tendency to stir things up at the very last moment, it felt as if the climaxes were underplayed. The danger of a too mechanical delivery was never far away and although he repeated the exposition of the first movement, it didn't feel as much of a gain. The Marcia funebre unfolded in a rather phlegmatic manner and while we could only admire the pure orchestral beauty, where was the sadness, the grief for the deceased hero? This was stiff upper lip mourning and the introspection of the movement's ending faded quickly into withdrawal. After a trenchant Scherzo, the Finale set off with great zest but Harding continued to guarantee clarity and articulation. The lovely poco andante section was however too cool again for its con espressione marking.
Harding came back for a generous and apt encore, Beethoven's overture to the Geschöpfe des Prometheus. Sunny, joyful and fast, driven by the orchestra's amazing strings, with striking coloration by the woodwinds, it made a perfect finale to this concert, even if it couldn't make us completely forget the disappointments of what came before.
Copyright © 2011, Marc Haegeman