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S & H Prom Review

PROM 1: Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Lang Lang (pf), Irina Tchistyakova (mezzo sop), James Rutherford (bass), Simon Russell Beale (narrator), BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC National Chorus of Wales; Leonard Slatkin (con), Royal Albert Hall, 18th July, 2003 (AR)


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 below).

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 brass.

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.

Alex Russell

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.





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