Seen&Heard Editor: Marc Bridle                              Founder Len Mullenger: Len@musicweb-international.com

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S & H Concert Review

Saariaho, Tchaikovsky, Brahms: Lang Lang (pf), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Christoph Eschenbach, RFH, 19th May 2002 (MB)

 

This superb concert was notable on many levels, not least for an incandescent performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto by the Manchurian pianist, Lang Lang, which dazzled as much as it infuriated. It started, however, with the UK première of Kaija Saariahos Nymphea Reflection.

She describes this string work as ‘an image of the symmetrical structure of the lily, bending and taking new shape in the rocking motion of the waves’. This is an apt description for a work which opens up the sonorities and textures of the string sound like a chrysalis. It is a fastidiously written work in which every dynamic, every shade of colour is bequeathed a unique individual beauty, whether it be in the complex harmony or in the proliferation of tempo changes which gives the piece its subtle yet eclectic magnetism. Throughout its 20-minute plus time span this is a work which induces a sense of becalm, even at those moments when tone changes to unpitched ‘noise’. At times it has a fragmentary beauty like late Debussy, at others an almost palpable sense of threnody, like early Penderecki, yet it retains its own individual voice throughout. This ‘voice’ becomes real in the final movement when the orchestra whisper the words of a Tarkovsky poem, a moment as profound as it is moving. Both Christoph Eschenbach and the London Philharmonic gave this work the first performance it deserved, the orchestra playing with a unanimity of concentration that was commendable.

They were similarly concentrated during their accompaniment to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto which in many ways must be one of the most technically miraculous performances to be heard in the Royal Festival Hall. Rarely can this concerto have been given such a bravura performance by a pianist still under twenty, and rarely can this much played work have been given a performance as searching as it was here. Lang Lang’s finger work was simply fabulous, as octaves sprung like uncoiled springs. Indeed, at moments he just held his fists quivering over the keyboard before launching into yet more dazzling trills. The first movement was a tour de force and understandably what remained seemed underpowered – the third movement particularly lacking electricity until the closing bars when Lang Lang summoned up the reserves to complete the concerto like a possessed devil.

There was, however, much more to this performance than a volatile virtuosity. This pianist’s sense of touch and poetry is remarkably refined for one so young – the second movement had real and bathetic beauties. What troubled me was his excessively deliberate rubato – most marked in the cadenzas and the reflective middle movement. He was often in danger of bringing the music to complete stasis yet remarkably kept the attention gripped against all the odds. Both the delicacy of his finger work and his sublime pedalling produced unusually rounded sonorities for this concerto. Blistering it might have been, but at times it was just genuinely beautiful to hear. Eschenbach was a dramatic accompanist drawing spellbinding playing from the orchestra.

Brahms’ First Symphony closed this concert – and what a superb performance the LPO gave of it. There were insecurities in the brass playing (although not where you would have expected them – the horn solo in the final movement was majestically played, for example) and occasionally the woodwind were louder than one would have wished but the strings had considerable beauty of tone throughout, notably in the basses and cellos. Eschenbach himself remains, as ever, the most selfless of conductors – this was a performance pretty much ‘as written’. Moments of difficulty for conductors, such as the opening timpani strokes, were here perfectly judged and timed, the balance in the final movement’s woodwind and horn lines were transparent and the coda of the symphony had a dramatic intensity, which it rarely does. This was a fine interpretation by an increasingly important conductor.

This superb concert is broadcast on Radio 3 on 23rd May.

Marc Bridle


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