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Lang Lang and Christoph

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Bartók, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, M. Perahia, G. Solti, E. Glennie

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Carnegie Hall Concert, E. Kissin, J. Levine
The partnership of a piano-playing conductor and a great pianist, united in music for piano, four hands, or for two pianos, can produce invigorating results, for the conductor, for the virtuoso, and for the audience. To a list that includes Georg Solti and Murray Perahia, James Levine and Evgeny Kissin -- not to mention the wonderful two-piano collaborations of Martha Argerich and friends at the Lugano Festival -- add Christoph Eschenbach and Lang Lang, who took the stage at end-to-end pianos on Wednesday night as part of the Chinese pianist's residency with the National Symphony Orchestra this week. With Eschenbach mostly in the driver's seat, playing primo for all but one of the pieces on the program, the more senior musician was able to contain most of the younger's brashness, guiding and channeling it to rather pleasing results.

Music for a pair of pianists to play is often among the best in a composer's oeuvre, perhaps because it was often intended for the composer to play with a student or friend. It is music that is generally known best by pianists who play it and is often best appreciated in the playing. Only the first piece on this excellent program, Mozart's sonata in D major (K. 448) was actually composed for two pianos, an arrangement that is much less intimate than four hands and requires considerably more coordination to make sure you are in synch with your partner. Lang Lang showed himself a sensitive secondo in this work, in a very spirited and fast first movement in which some of the filigreed details were not quite clear. Although the careful use of the full dynamic range of the two modern instruments was refreshing, the second movement was perhaps a crystal tear too precious in its delicacy.

The remaining pieces on the program were originally composed for piano, four hands, beginning with Mozart's extraordinary F major sonata (K. 497). As Kissin and Levine did, to expand music for performance in a large hall, Eschenbach and Lang Lang played these pieces on two pianos. The first two movements of this sonata -- a murky Adagio introducing an Allegro with some poignant harmonic sequences and lots of flirtation with minor keys, followed by a tender Andante with many call and answer effects -- were rendered with beautiful attention to detail. The jolly third movement, all heavy off-beat accents, was a little disjointed but still fun.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Coming to appreciate Lang Lang (Washington Post, November 9)

---, Lang Lang’s unique style, good and bad, offers originality (Washington Post, November 6)

Katherine Boyle, Lang Lang eager to hitch young pianists to his stardom (Washington Post, November 3)

Joshua Kosman, S.F. Symphony review: Lang! Crash! Boom! (San Francisco Chronicle, November 2)

David Patrick Stearns, Lang Lang displays growth in 'The Chopin Album' (Philadelphia Inquirer, October 30)

Jefferson Graham, Talking Your Tech: How pianist Lang Lang uses tech (USA Today, October 23)
In many ways, Schubert's F Minor Fantasy (D. 940, also originally for piano, four hands) is the summa of this repertoire, and it was a good idea to have Lang Lang play primo for it, to give the best of his pinging tone to the work's famous, melancholy main theme, taken at a tempo drooping with wistful languor. With Lang Lang given the steering wheel, the performance became more impetuous, which only heightened the piece's elusive qualities. After that, the A minor duo (D. 947, Lebensstürme) could not help but be disappointing, although it had crackling energy and many of those magical Schubert modulations, where you blink your eyes and suddenly you are in a distant tonal world. Also originally for four hands, the expansion to two pianos gave the work even greater symphonic scope. More Schubert was offered for the first encore, a boisterous Marche caractéristique (No. 1, Allegro vivace), after a brief conference between the performers about the repeats, which are tricky (as experienced first-hand by one of the page-turners). The second encore was a particular favorite of mine, the "Ballet" movement from Debussy's Petite Suite, played in its original four-hands arrangement. The contagious fun that the two musicians had seated next to each other at the same keyboard made one regret that the other four-hands pieces had been split apart on two pianos.

Lang Lang's residency at the Kennedy Center continues with three appearances as soloists with the National Symphony Orchestra. In addition to performances of Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche and Dvořák's seventh symphony all three nights, Lang Lang will play a different Beethoven piano concerto each night — nos. 2 (tonight), 3 (November 9), and 5 (November 10).

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