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S & H Concert Review

Anderson, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov Lang Lang (piano); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Tadaaki Otaka, RFH, April 30th, 2003 (CC)



It is good that Julian Anderson, as the LPO’s Composer in Focus, is getting the attention he deserves: a disc of his music has been recorded by the BBCSO under Oliver Knussen, to be released on Ondine, and the current London exposure can do him no harm. On this occasion we heard The Crazed Moon (1997); Stations of the Sun was played last November and Khorovod will be performed by the LPO on June 12th.

Anderson was due to give a pre-concert talk, in conjunction with Anthony Burton. An ear infection meant he could not fly back to London from the US in time, however (presumably he was stuck on a boat, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic), so it was up to Burton and the pianist Huw Watkins, a pupil of Anderson’s, to provide the requisite background for the uninitiated.

The decision to include performances of three of Anderson’s piano pieces as an aural starter to the orchestral main course was a good one. Watkins gave eminently musical accounts of Etude No. 2 (a study in monody with Eastern European inflections), Etude No. 4 (entitled, ‘Misreading Rameau’) and Quasi una Passacaglia (written for Oliver Knussen’s 55th birthday celebrations: a 15-note passacaglia, with shimmering trills and oblique glances at jazz).

The orchestral The Crazed Moon came with a double dedication on this occasion. Initially, it was an elegy for the composer’s friend, Graeme Smith, who died in 1995 at the age of 24. However, Sue Knussen, who had interviewed Anderson before Stations of the Sun last November and was originally scheduled to take the introductory event to this concert, died just a few weeks ago after a sudden illness: this performance of The Crazed Moon was explicitly dedicated to her memory. It is an impressive work. The LPO responded to Otaka’s crystal-clear beat by giving a dedicated account. Alas, the split-laden opening (on three off-stage trumpets) did not bode well, but the ensuing subterranean grumblings set up a monolithic aura which permeated the work’s 13-minute span. Anderson has a keen aural appetite that can be heard not only in his expert and imaginative orchestration but also in his complex heterophonies. It is clear Anderson wishes to take the listener on a journey, and not an easy one at that. But a richly rewarding one, nevertheless.

Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto provided stark contrast. Lang Lang is an impressive pianist on his day and his Teldec recital disc is certainly well worth hearing. Expectations were therefore running high. A pity then that he seemed to feel his way into Mendelssohn’s fleet-footed world. The opening declamations were not as sparkling as they might have been (the orchestra remained closer to the composer’s spirit throughout the first movement). Only in the Andante did Lang Lang unleash his sensitive side (mirrored especially by some ravishing sonorities from the lower strings) and reveal his affinity to Mendelssohn – the finale heralded a return to the joie-de-vivre-less impression of the first movement. Lang Lang, now under contract to DG, has recorded this concerto (the coupling is Tchaikovsky 1) with the Chicago Symphony under Barenboim, due for release in June. It will be interesting to compare that with this live performance. In the event, the passages in the finale that did hint at Lang Lang’s sense of fun only served to highlight what was missing elsewhere.

The encore was the real surprise. Lang Lang returned to the stage with an older gentleman (‘this is my father’) to play an arrangement for erhu (Chinese two-string fiddle) and piano of a piece called, ‘Competing horses’. Great fun, sheer delight, and totally unexpected. And proof that an erhu can neigh like the best of them.

Otaka, conducting from memory, presented Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony clearly and lucidly (this piece can seem to sprawl in the wrong hands). Care was evident from the very opening. Wind chords were expertly balanced, climaxes well prepared (I thought Otaka was going to take off at one point). The LPO certainly seemed to enjoy the romp of the second movement, an effective contrast to the blossoming of emotion in the famous Adagio. This was a by turns elevating, endearing, touching and rousing reading which was a great success, even if it did not erase memories of Svetlanov and the Philharmonia in this hall in January 2002.

As a bonus, I almost expected Otaka to wheel out his uncle, toting a shakuhachi …

Colin Clarke



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