You wouldn’t normally expect a pairing of Bartk’s Second Piano Concerto and Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony to result in a sold out concert on a Monday evening.
However, the presence of Chinese superstar pianist Lang Lang seems guaranteed to result in a full house whatever the repertoire.
This concert in the UBS Soundscapes series was just one of a number of events in Lang Lang’s week long residency at the Barbican. It’s pleasing to see that Lang Lang is doing much more than just giving recitals of popular piano classics. For instance, the opening day of his residency included a masterclass for three pianists from the Guildhall School, while another concert involved the UK premiere of Tan Dun’s Piano Concerto, a work which was written especially for him.
Lang Lang’s performance of Bartk’s infrequently heard Second Piano Concerto, however, exemplified some of the features of his music making which have generated the most critical comment. His physical response to the music, which saw him bobbing up and down during the concerto’s faster passages, might indicate a passionate engagement with the music. Certainly his playing in the final movement was a marvellous demonstration of keyboard virtuosity. On the other hand, his prominent foot tapping during rhythmic passages hinted at a performance for his own pleasure rather than that of the audience.
As it happened, the concerto’s second movement, a marvellous example of Bartk’s so called ‘night music’, was very impressive. Lang Lang brought a sense of hushed rapture to the slow outer sections, while the tremolando strings of the London Symphony Orchestra under Principal Guest Conductor Daniel Harding had a tangible aural presence.
Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is perhaps the most difficult of the series to bring off. Behind its austere orchestral textures and rigorous construction is a work of great splendour and emotional depth, but it requires special skill on the part of the conductor to make its full effect. For the first ten minutes, the performance appeared to be heading in the right direction. The soft pizzicatos and gentle string phrases of the opening were full of atmosphere, and the subsequent brass proclamations were sonorous and exciting.
However, a somewhat abrupt tempo change partway through the first movement somehow broke the spell, and the rest of the symphony was only partly successful. The Adagio, taken quite fast, had a sense of classical poise and was often quite beautiful, but missed something of the spiritual fervour underpinning the music. The Scherzo and Finale suffered from trumpets which were too loud and lower pitched instruments which were too quiet. By the end, the hard, bright sound had become wearying and robbed the symphony of its epic grandeur.