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Lang Lang with the NSO

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The Chopin Album, Lang Lang

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Complete Recordings (2000-2009), Lang Lang
Lang Lang's residency with the National Symphony Orchestra has been the week's big news maker. Now that the brash, spiky-haired prodigy is in his 30s, critics are finding that he may have something behind all that virtuosity. I am not sure that I heard anything this week that changes my opinion of him. I have never been disappointed by any of his performances: he is a Lisztian showman of the first order, capable of ever greater circus-style feats -- playing three Beethoven concertos in three days with the NSO may be one of the biggest yet -- but he is likewise vulnerable to the risk of making cheesy interpretative and repertoire choices. These were all qualities of his performance on Friday night with the NSO, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 (op. 37).

Lang Lang's greatest gift to classical music -- some would argue what tarnishes his reputation -- is an unparalleled celebrity. In all my years of going to concerts at the Kennedy Center, this was the first time that young children next to me regularly badgered their parents about when the soloist was going to play. He packed the Concert Hall for every performance, and many people came more than once, cheering wildly at every facet of his rhapsodic, weird performance. At the podium Christoph Eschenbach made some effort to rein his soloist in, taking the first movement initially at a somewhat reserved tempo, but he had little choice but to give Lang Lang his head as he moved the music in so many different directions. The technique was startling -- impetuous runs, buzzsaw trills, the cadenza rendered like one of Liszt's opera paraphrases -- but the second movement got tangled in its own self-indulgence, starting with a particularly wandering, dreamy piano introduction, while the third movement, not quite as fast as one expected, was still a delirious galop. A quirky encore, Chopin's "Minute Waltz," taken at a clip and with theatrical over-gesturing, was just short of a parody of Chico Marx. All in all, not one of my favorite performances but also not one I would not have wanted to miss.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Lang Lang, Christoph Eschenbach, NSO offer vivid classical music (Washington Post, November 9)
For its part, the NSO played extremely well, matching its stride to that of Lang Lang in the Beethoven. Richard Strauss's comic tone poem Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (op. 28) served as curtain-opener, in a whimsical and funny performance that Eschenbach helped to shape with a mercurial rubato. The horn solos had an appropriately rowdy character, with raucous sounds from the cymbals and ratchet to accent big pranks, a flashy solo from concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, and ominous brass sounds when it looks bad for Till, although there was something a little vinegary in the final fff chord. We last heard the closing work, Dvořák's seventh symphony (op. 70), under Iván Fischer in 2009. Eschenbach gave its opening more dread than mystery, and although not enough was saved for the first movement's climax, it had a brooding, fierce quality. The slow movement was lyrically pastoral, with striking blooms of sound in the brass and Wagnerian undertones in the harmony, while the third felt just a little smooth and gentle for Vivace. Folksy rustic sounds rounded out the fourth movement quite nicely, an exciting conclusion, although Dvořák's decision to tack on a modal shift to major, at the end of this decidedly tragic symphony, always feels contrived.

Vasily Petrenko takes the reins of the NSO this week (November 15 and 17), leading performances of Shostakovich's fourth symphony and Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, with Sergey Khachatryan as soloist. On Friday night (November 16), Petrenko will preside over a multimedia examination of the Shostakovich fourth, the Beyond the Score presentation created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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