BBC Proms reviews

Prom 61: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra – Leonard Slatkin @ Royal Albert Hall, London

31 August 2006

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

After a two-year absence, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra made a much anticipated return to the BBC Proms, their worldwide reputation as one of America’s leading ensembles cemented by Mariss Jansons’ highly successful tenure as their Musical Director (1997-2004). However, no matter how well regarded an orchestra may be, it will always take something of a back seat to a highly touted soloist.

In tonight’s case, such an artist came in the form of Chinese piano superstar Lang Lang.  But what is happening to Lang Lang? It was not so long ago that, as a humble 21-year old, he opened the Proms, clothed in traditional Chinese dress, with a fine and daring rendition of Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor Piano Concerto. Now, three years on, he came on to the stage dressed in a suit with a scruffy open collar, armed with various concert mannerisms that exuded an awareness of his own ‘maestro’ status. Would his account of Chopin’s Piano Concert No. 1 live up to such a self-billing?

Unfortunately, it was a somewhat disjointed performance. There were certainly moments of wonder and excitement. The Romanze was depicted with delicacy and perspicacity, while the virtuoso passages in the first and third movements were played with riveting and consummate ease. However, both outer movements took a while to get off the ground once the soloist had entered. This was particularly true of the Rondo, in which Lang Lang’s rather quirky phrasing prevented the main theme from gathering momentum. It often sounded as if he was trying (too hard) to fashion an idiosyncratic reading, leaving little room for Chopin’s music to speak for itself. Meanwhile, though Leonard Slatkin (who replaced the ailing Sir Andrew Davies at short notice) ran a tight ship, the PSO seemed unwilling to draw life out of Chopin’s notoriously lacklustre orchestral score.

Lang Lang’s approach was more at home in his encore, Vladimir Horowitz’s transcription of the Friska from Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. His sole objective was to put on a display of crowd-pleasing pianistic pyrotechnics, and in that capacity it was a thrilling performance, full of wit and energy.

Either side of the Chopin, we were treated to two delightful performances from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. The concerto was followed by a lively account of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel in which the PSO constantly conveyed the humour of the protagonist’s ‘merry pranks’. From the happy-go-lucky opening horn solo, to the open E-strings in the solo violin, to Slatkin’s unpredictable pauses in Till’s excessively depicted journey to the scaffold, this was a performance of stark drollery by an ensemble clearly on top of its game. The fact that several members of the audience erroneously applauded following the first fortissimo trombone statement towards the end was perhaps a sign that the PSO had captured the over-the-top nature of this work in such a way that Strauss would have approved of.

Strauss has been credited with saying, ‘never look at the trombones, you’ll only encourage them’. If this was truly his opinion, then surely he would have disapproved of the finale of Charles Ives’ Second Symphony, in which the trombones get to their feet in order to deliver a boisterous version of ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean’. Though this is not the most inspired of Ives’ works, the PSO’s account might easily have made one think otherwise. While the faster movements were tackled with dashing verve and virtuosity, what most impressed was the intricate string playing throughout. The sound-world created in the first movement – aided in large part by the noticeably weighty efforts of the double basses – seemed to envelop and enrapture the audience, an effect that is extremely difficult to achieve in the acoustically unfriendly confines of the Royal Albert Hall.

The PSO were generous in their provision of lollipops once the concert proper had ended, offering two encores by English composers. Walton’s ‘Touch Her Soft Lips and Part’ (Henry V) played to one of the orchestra’s strengths, once again allowing the strings to draw the audience into a realm of warm, exquisite timbres. A rambunctious performance of ‘The Wild Bears’ from Elgar’s second Wand of Youth Suite followed, bringing the evening’s music-making to a close.

Though Lang Lang’s technical wizardry may have stolen the limelight, there is no doubt that the PSO has well and truly earned its place as one of the world’s elite orchestras. May their next appearance at the Proms be sooner rather than later.

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