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Saturday 25 February 2012

Lang Lang in Baden Baden

Marc Piollet
Mozarteumorchester Salzburg
Lang Lang

Having never seen Lang Lang live before, and only having heard short clips of his playing on youtube, I was quite interested to see him play.

The Mozarteumorchester Salzburg started with the Consecration of the House Overture, one of the weakest and least interesting works of Beethoven's late period. Despite this, their playing just oozed quality - superb ensemble with perfect Beethovinian style, individual personalities blending to become a single entity.

When Lang Lang joined them for Beethoven's first piano concerto they acted as ideal support and partners to his piano playing, easily matching his energy and accuracy. Lang Lang is a fairly astonishing technician, every note in place, every detail controlled and precise, and his playing in the first movement captured the movement's ebulient invention very well. The hushed simplicity of the slow movement was also delivered beautifully by both soloist and orchestra - probably the loveliest sound of the evening. The finale felt less focussed and overly discursive but the blame might lie as much at Beethoven's youthful feet, as at the performer's.

After the interval we heard the Leonora Overture no.3, which with its spicy rhythms and harmonic twists sounded for all the world like proto Dvorak. Or rather we might say, one realises quite how deep the influence of Beethoven was on Dvorak (the apogee of course being the quasi homage of the scherzo of the 9th symphony). All this perfectly managed playing, however amazing in itself, was beginning to lack something - a little more sauce, a little risk would have made it truly memorable.

Then Lang returned to the stage for Beethoven's 4th Piano concerto which is perhaps my favourite of the five, with its surprising poetic delicacy, highly unorthodox structure, heartbreaking moments of calm, and intricate layerings in the loud moments, rather than diamond edged stormyness as is Beethoven's usual recourse. Here is a piece where subtlety is key and Lang struggled to match Beethoven's demands - not technically of course, but in place of quiet shading of the line, high drama in the smallest of gestures, the broad spectrum of colours and almost speaking interplay with the orchestra that the piece contains we got a sort of freakishly clear and clean account that managed to say very little. Superb though his digital facility is and odd though it seems to say it, Lang wasn't ever able to make one forget that he was playing a percussion instrument.

The audience's response was of course rapturous and we got an encore of a Liszt romance which was actually beautifully played. Overall though, I left the concert hall feeling rather empty emotionally and spiritually, despite undeniably excellent playing from all. The ticket price structure for the seats was €210/172/139/107/63 which is absolutely exorbitant. The Maisky concert the next day was almost exactly half this per seat (+/- €5), which I still think is outrageously expensive if we compare it to normal concert hall series where we might easly see these two star artists. As a result the audience was comprised of very rich old people and ultra hardcore fans (the guy next to me was recording everything on his iphone and filming every single one of Lang's passages on and off the stage. He didn't even look happy.)

As a slightly contentious side note: All Beethoven programmes seem to be more common an occurence than they are for any other composer (Shostakovich second most likely?), but to me the idea rarely comes off with him. Even if, as here, there is work from a variety of his periods; and even while admitting that his superlative compositional mastery causes him to rarely or never misjudge things, means and ends never at odds and indeed usually enriching one another; the ear begins to tire, a little too quickly does his orchestration start to sound unvaried, his unfailing tendency to build pieces from the most basic of triadic motives seem wearisome, his periodic interchange of bombast and beauty seems all too predictable. Of course he is one of the greatest of all composers and taken on its own, virtually every one of his compositions works superbly well on its own terms (there are a few exceptions), but the cumulative effect of his work is not one of adding facets and aspects to a portrait of the man as it might be in say, an all Ravel concert or an all Stravinsky one - with Beethoven, the whole man is revealed in every work, throughout his life he always ploughs the same furrow, delving ever deeper into his particular font of genius, until the mysteries of his final, greatest phase, which are of such unfathomable unearthly perfection that they remain forever radical and almost outside of style or time or place altogether.

Not to say that such a concert can't be enjoyable (though I boldly suggest that most won't be), just that it is almost never telling or illuminating programming.

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