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Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 20 )

Vienna Philharmonic 4 • Jansons, Lang Lang

Stravinsky at eleven in the morning, no matter how well played that Petrushka Suite, is just a little (too) much. The Vienna Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons was impressive in said work in the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg, with many colors, intricate cross-section chatter, and occasional harmlessness-interludes. But even superb-if-eventually-tedious Stravinsky couldn’t overcome my impression of distinctly ho-humm programming: Said Suite, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E-flat, and Ravel’s La Valse. Certainly not my idea of AM-fare to be slapped across my morning-dewed ears, but ultimately a program that sounded better in concert than it looked on paper.

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Stravinsky & Prokofiev, 1947 Petrushka, Symphonic Dances,
Jansons / RCO
RCO Live

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Liszt, PC No.1 et al.,
Lang Lang / Gergiev / WPh
Snappy and witting conducting of Maestro Jansons suggested that he was in good form, which is to say: good health. That’s always gratifying to see, especially for anyone looking forward to hearing many more of his concerts in either Amsterdam or Munich, where earlier this year he signed a contract to continue with the BRSO until 2015. Watching him, and having seen several other conductors just before this concert, it became obvious again that Jansons is a gorgeous conductor to watch, with clear lines and beats but not just technical proficiency or mere motor skills. With characteristic moves, but no strange ticks like Gergiev’s ‘Dying Marabou’ or ‘Toothpick swirl’, or Christian Thielemann’s ‘Sandbox shuffle’.

Liszt and Lang Lang both suffer from easy stereotyping. Glitz and flash on the outside, empty on the inside. These stereotypes don’t come from nowhere, and it would be futile—or at least obnoxiously pretentious—to argue that in truth the exact opposite where true. It isn’t. A lot (though certainly not all) of music of Liszt is pretty glitzy on the outside and not all that deep. And so is a lot (though certainly not all) of Lang Lang’s music-making. The curious result is that critics and snobs underrate Lang Lang severely, audiences overrate him. The same can’t quite be said for Liszt, because calling him a hit with audiences would be going rather too far. Curiously one of the most recorded composers, he’s hardly ever on the program… and when he is, it’s usually the Sonata in b-minor. Or, were it not for Nazi-appropriation, Les Preludes. But when has the Parsifal-heralding cantata The Bells of Strasbourg Cathedral been last performed? Or The much-better-than-its-nonexistent-reputation Legend of St. Elisabeth?

In any case, the stereotype, however understandable, does injustice to both, because for every two works or performances that support it, comes one that suffices to shatter it again. Would the combination of the two—in this concerto—bring out the best, or the worst of both? Not quite the best, perhaps, but more of the better ones, than the worst certainly. Having overstated dynamics certainly beats having carelessly muddled ones. Having a pianist so unfazed by any difficulties that he can still run a ring-a-ring-o' roses around the score gives him opportunity to care about expression beyond the notes—some of which Lang Lang put to good use. Seeing his fingers weaving their way across the keyboard with causal ease suggests they’re at least partially made of India rubber. And it’s good to hear some real pianissimo-playing, mannered or not. Was it still bold, thunderous, and flashy? Why yes, of course. It’s the Liszt Piano Concerto No.1!

I still don’t like a lot of his chair-dance antics while performing, the public emoting, but occasionally a physical gesture can illustrate, not obscure, the music behind it. The swift parting of hands after a soft run up the keyboard suggesting how the music dissipates like birds into the sounds of the orchestra that overtakes… was one, if perhaps singular, moment of the visual enhancing the audible. Overplayed La Valse, for all its charm, more and more strikes me as the we-can’t-think-of-anything-else-to-program piece. It didn’t rise to the full-blooded performance that "1947" Petrushka had bestowed upon it yet without being in any way bad: an aimless sort of excellence—not unlike the concert as a whole.