Review: Lang Lang & Philharmonia Orchestra

Having a celebrity name on board may increase ticket sales, but Lang Lang’s week-long collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall has been far from a critical success. The reviews of the pianist’s renditions of Grieg’s A minor and Mozart’s C minor concerti have been decidedly unfavourable, with broadsheets of all denominations striking a tone that at times came close to contempt. The flamboyancy that characterises Lang Lang’s interpretations is clearly not appreciated by Britain’s top classical music journalists. His performances were particularly disparaged for lacking the nuance and subtlety necessitated by such crystalline compositions.

Fortunately, Thursday evening’s programme of late-Romantic Russian repertoire was safer territory for the pianist. Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 demanded the technical expertise that Lang Lang excels in, whilst denying him the time or space in which to introduce any erratic gestures. His idiosyncrasies were reduced to a minimum, and the performance was all the better for it. The mellifluous tones of the clarinets established a wistful opening, which quickly dissipated with the entry of urgent strings and the triumphal interjection of the soloist. The orchestra’s measured and precise playing kept the movement from boiling over, achieving the perfect climax at the recapitulation of the second subject, which arrived complete with a visceral duet between piccolo and piano, and a castanet accompaniment.

The second movement of Prokofiev’s concerto, a gavotte with variations, was the highlight of the evening. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s attentive negotiation of the many different moods brought out the complete control of Prokofiev’s writing, and Lang Lang responded with similarly artful restraint. The final movement offered an opportunity for the pianist to showcase his virtuosity, with breathtakingly rapid scale passages interrupting the sumptuous string melody. The percussive ending was delivered at breakneck speed, with every flourish executed flawlessly, wrenching wave upon wave of applause from the ecstatic audience.

Having given his best performance of the week, Lang Lang wisely elected to forego an encore. Instead, Salonen was left to return to the stage with a decidedly tough act to follow. With Scriabin’s  Le poeme de l’extase, the Philharmonia rose to the occasion. Reinforced with double brass and a host of percussionists, the orchestra gave an intense interpretation of the work, never losing the audience in the midst of the composer’s characteristically dreamy meanderings. The ovation at the close of proceedings was just as clamorous as the response to Lang Lang’s performance, a mark of how engaging the Philharmonia remained throughout. Earlier, they had opened the concert with a selection of movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet suites, which flaunted the composer’s mastery of texture and colour. The work’s slower movements demonstrated the orchestra at their most refined, with the exquisite trumpet-piccolo and horn-lower strings pairings achieved in perfect synchronicity.

This latest offering in the Philharmonia’s 70th Anniversary Season never failed to keep the audience enthralled. It is testament to the abilities of the instrumentalists involved, though, that attention was focused upon the compositions themselves, and the concerto in particular. As powerful and adept as Lang Lang and the Philharmonia’s performances were, the real headliner of the evening was Prokofiev.

Ben Horton

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