The BBC Proms 2003 kicked off
with a brisk account of Shostakovich’s witty Festive Overture
(1954) with Leonard Slatkin drawing energetic playing from the BBC Symphony
Orchestra. Admittedly lightweight Shostakovich, this performance had
an English accent, sounding curiously like a blend of William Walton
and Eric Coates (which may have reflected this conductor’s preoccupation
with performing British music).
A mere ‘veteran’ of 20 years old, Lang Lang has
had a long association with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number One
in B flat minor. I heard Lang
Lang play the work with the LPO under
Eschenbach (May 2002) and found it a total revelation and could not
imagine it being played with greater vivacity, lyricism and over-all
panache. This Prom performance proved me wrong: the intervening year
has, if anything, increased the dynamic range and intensified the emotion
and passion of his interpretation. Speaking of the work, Lang Lang stated
in a BBC interview: "This piece is quite revolutionary…I heard
this piece when I was two…". Lang Lang started playing this
piece when he was nine, giving his first public performance aged twelve
in Beijing. His big break came via a last–minute substitution for Andre
Watts at the Ravinia Festival’s ‘Gala of the Century’ playing the Tchaikovsky
concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and it was this performance
which won him international recognition (see Editor’s note
Lang Lang’s idiosyncratic, risk-taking
interpretation of the first movement Allegro was fortunately
unimpeded by Slatkin’s sometimes sluggish and laboured conducting. Lang
Lang generated great nervous tension by playing with extreme dynamics
of sound and shifts of mood, from the high-powered crescendi to the
more intimate reflective passages. The somewhat detached BBC SO sounded
like mere back- ground music, lacking the drama, poetry and passion
coming from the piano.
Slatkin and the BBC SO were more
in tune and touch with their soloist in the Andantino. Here Lang
Lang’s incandescent playing took on an extraordinary delicacy; poetic,
subtle and subdued one second; fleeting and buoyantly floating the next.
This was Lang Lang at his greatest and most inspired.
With conductor and orchestra more
focused and less laboured, Lang Lang took on a joyful playfulness in
the closing Allegro playing with a dancing lilt, with the pianist
clearly enjoying the experience, miming the music as if he was singing
the notes. In the closing passages his playing took on the white heat
of an improvising jazz pianist. This was a ‘revolutionary’ rendition
of a great concert favourite which had the audience in raptures.
Slatkin and the BBC SO were much
more committed and responsive to their main offering of the evening:
Sergey Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible Op. 116 (1942-5) concert
oratorio, performed for the first time at the Proms.
This work was a synthesis of the
three hour score written in collaboration with Sergei Eisenstein for
the latter’s monumental history of the reign of Ivan 1V, ‘The Terrible’.
In order to explain the progression of the work, Prokofiev uses the
somewhat clumsy device of a Narrator – representing Ivan himself. This
calls on an actor to give a running commentary on the piece, plus a
plotted performance of Ivan - no mean task.
Simon Russell Beale is one of
our finest classical actors, but in his capacity as narrator he sounded
absurdly out of place with his somewhat pompous Oxbridge accent. This
was even more pronounced when compared with the magnificent singing
of the choruses, in impeccable Russian, which acted as a unifying thread
throughout the work. His schoolmaster-like lectures to explain the plot
were totally unnecessary and tended to break the flow of the music.
It seemed patronising to use a narrator since everything we need to
know is in the music. Programme notes would have sufficed for the nuts
and bolts explanations.
Irina Tchistyakova, in the role
of Ivan’s nurse, sang the lullaby Ocean Sea with tenderness and
great expression, and later excelled in the more sinister lullaby sung
by the Tsar’s scheming, murderous aunt Yefrosinia Staritskaya, recounting
the story of the black Beaver.
In Long Live the Tsar,
Russell Beal’s theatrical cry of "The Tsar is bewitched! The
Tsar is bewitched!’ sounded as if it came straight out of a Monty
Python sketch, whilst Slatkin exhorted his players to perform with great
panache in The Holy Fool, excelling themselves with dark raucous
brass and pointed percussion.
The choruses produced sweet, haunting
singing in the Glorification, with sensitive support from flute
and harp, whilst the change of mood to The Tartars allowed
the full percussion section to play with threatening menace, and in
To Kazani the martial tubas had a sinister, doom-laden quality.
The most poignant moment of the oratorio was the ‘Tartar’s Steppes’
melody sublimely and softly sung by the women’s Chorus.
In Slatkin’s conducting of Fyodor
Basmanov’s Song, bass-baritone James Rutherford, in the role of
Ivan’s favourite bodyguard, was placed at the back of the orchestra,
making little impact in the song glorifying the destruction of the Boyars.
The male chorus, egged on by him, revelled in the bloody destruction
of the former ruling class, and this was followed by The Dance of
the Oprichniks, a drunken gopak, rhythmically taut and menacing
with shrill whistles, heavily pounded piano and jagged percussion and
The highlight of the Finale
was the exquisite singing of the chorus’ entreaty to Ivan to come back
to Moscow, with trombones punctuating the hushed pleas of the singers.
The work ended with Ivan vowing to accomplish great things, once more
promising to rebuild Russia ‘Over the bones of our enemies’, a strong
and fitting climax to the work.
This concert augured well for
the further celebrations to come in this season’s Proms in this centenary
year of Prokofiev’s birth.
Editor adds: Having recently
been sent for review Lang Lang’s new recording of Tchaikovsky’s First
Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim
(DG 474 291-2) I wondered what type of performance we would get of this
War Horse at this first concert of the Prom season. The CD struck me
on first hearing as having been a performance more manipulated, in terms
of balance and rubato, by the conductor rather than the pianist (Barenboim
himself having made a live recording – of some stature, I should add
– with Celibidache that suffers from similar distortions) but Lang Lang’s
Prom performance now confirms this not to be case. I disagree with AR
about this performance markedly – it was much less prismatic in colouring
than I’ve previously heard from him (with Eschenbach, for example),
less dynamically secure, with some wayward pedal control, and tension
was not always dramatically sustained with some obtrusive rubato notable
- but not exclusively – in the cadenza and throughout long stretches
of the opening movement. Just as Barenboim and his Chicagoans on disc
seemed unconvinced by Lang Lang’s less than judicious phrasing so did
Slatkin and the BBC SO. The technique may be almost flawless, but the
pianist’s conception of this piece is much less so. (MB)
Lang Lang in interview.