Lang Lang in Bartok’s 2nd Piano Concerto is “The Real Thing”

One approaches performances by over-hyped younsters with great skepticism… but skepticism is defeated by Lang Lang, the young Chinese pianist who set a real challenge for himself by taking on Bela Bartok's 2nd Piano Concerto (1930-31), a monster of a piece both as a technical challenge and as a musical challenge.  It is easy for somebody with big technique to make a big noise in this piece.  More difficult is to play all the notes with confidence while capturing and projecting the soul of the music, and this is what Lang Lang achieved in his guest appearance last week with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert. 

Both men have a great affinity for Bartok's music, realizing at the same time its modernism and its archaism, deriving motifs from the characteristic melodic lines and rhythms of the folk musics of Eastern Europe while embracing the advanced techniques of 20th century concert music.  Lang Lang, performing (unusually) from the score with a page-turner at hand, eschwed his usual physical demonstrativeness at the performance I attended on January 21 (the last of the four-concert cycle), instead combining physical restraint with the most exquisite technique, communicating the bristling excitement of the allegros and the eloquent lyricism of the adagio – and, perhaps most captivating, the elfin brilliance of the central presto in the second movement. 

This was an unforgettable performance, and I hope Lang Lang will proceed to learn all three concerti and eventually record them, as he would be making an important contribution to the archives of world music.

The program began with Magnus Lindberg's mid-1990s tone poem, "Feria," which as the name implies includes festive intervals.  I am of two minds about Lindberg's orchestral compositions.  On the one hand, I admire and enjoy the unusual colors and textures he produces with his imaginative orchestrations, and there is a propulsive energy in his work that keeps the listener engaged.  On the other, I am never fully satisfied with music that does not reveal some melodic interest being developed at its core, and I miss that in Lindberg.  The orchestra played brilliantly, the audience responded enthusiastically, but I'm still waiting for the Lindberg piece that will engaged me on a deeper level.

Finally, they played Serge Prokofiev's 5th Symphony, an old favorite.  I learned this piece as a teenager from the LP recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, a swift-paced, relentlessly foward moving 39 minutes of orchestral virtuosity, perhaps a bit light on the necessary lyricism and more in tune with the "savagery" of the piece.  This biases me in all subsequent exposures, whether on record or in concert.  For example, I always thought the much-praised recordings by Ormandy were almost glacially sluggish, and Bernstein's go with the NYP struck me as willfully distorted in terms of tempo.  Gilbert's approach is more straightforward, albeit still much more slowly-paced than Szell.  (The program note said the performance would take about 43 minutes, about ten percent longer than the Szell recording, but it seemed even a bit longer to me.) 

That said, I thought the orchestra played brilliantly, and I adjusted to the slower tempos quickly.  When phrasing is so precise and all the elements of the score are projected with such unanimity and force, a slower tempo can seem faster than it is.  (This was part of the secret of Toscanini, whose tempi were fast for their time but in retrospect not quite as fast as tempi were to become in the 1950s and 1960s before a massive slow-down in tempi got under way in the classical music world.  Toscanini insisted on a degree of precision that made the music sound faster than it was, because of the relentless forward motion and the cleanness of orchestral articulation.)

On balance, this was a fine concert, and also, notably, a concert comprised entirely of 20th century works, at least one of which was by a living composer, and two of which were likely to have been relatively unfamiliar to the audience.  Only one of the pieces had been played by the NYP within the last five years (the Prokofiev), and ultimately this stands as one of the more adventurous programs on this year's subscription series.  It's not that I don't want to hear Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms, but I think it is important to explore and expand the more recent repertory for the orchestra to play a creative role in musical life, so this program was most welcome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.