SSO Opera House concert 10 June 2016
After testing recent audiences’ resilience with the lunges and shocks of Messiaen, and then their staying power to see off Haydn’s Creation, last night’s concert opened a chocolate box full of favourite flavours.
Billed as ‘Lang Lang plays Grieg’ – a special event sponsored by Premier Credit Suisse – there was no doubt that this was a classical pop concert lacking only screaming teenagers and flying knickers.
In a concession rarely made to concerto soloists, Lang Lang’s Grieg occupied the second half of the program, meaning that people went home humming Norwegian tunes, rather than something more symphonic, as they recalled the showmanship of the world’s most successful (and quite possibly richest) classical pianist. Rather than audience numbers diminishing after interval, as is often the case, they grew, as many Chinese patrons and their children came only to hear their countryman play.
The more highbrow among us might scoff at a concert of schmaltz, but for all my love of profound classical music I’m not afraid to declare a liking for the occasional bath in syrup.
Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 pops up in all kinds of places such as movies and advertising, which meant that I was sitting back with a ho-hum attitude when the concert commenced. That was demolished immediately Venezuelan conductor, Manuel Lopez-Gomez, raised his baton and the orchestra responded with a sound that magically combined fullness with restraint. Although Grieg calls for a big orchestra (bull- fiddle count: eight) it moved forward as one instrument. The strings in Death of Ase were mesmerising. Were it not for the looming presence of Lang Lang, this tall young conductor with the remarkable eyebrows would have stolen the show. I hope the SSO brings Lopez-Gomez back in the future.
He also wrought wonders with Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini – symphonic fantasia after Dante. With a symphonic layout similar to Pyotr’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture, it bookends lovers’ tender embraces with walloping trouble. In Francesca’s case we are served up aspects of Hell. Again, this is in the popular repertoire, but the SSO under Lopez-Gomez gave it clarity, life and excitement that belied its familiarity.
And so to the third layer in the chocolate box: Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. Like its companion, the Tchaikovsky first, every pianist worth his or her salt – and quite a few who are not – have played and recorded it. Freed of surprises in the music, the listener can therefore concentrate on the interpretation.
Still looking like a teenager, the 34 year old Chinese superstar arrives on stage to deafening applause, forcing him to go through a 360 degree bowing routine before sitting down at the Steinway and flexing his long fingers. After quiet settles, the rising anticipation is suddenly broken by the tympani, then the first massive A minor chord from the piano releases a cascade down the keyboard; Lang Lang is bolting away.
I’ve never witnessed a Grieg like this one. Lang Lang took outrageous liberties with tempi and melody notes, sometimes creating the illusion that this was not the Grieg I knew. He would pause at the end of a phrase, hands raised above the keyboard and fingers flexing while I wondered if he’d stopped for a cuppa. Then he’d attack a passage, like the one near the end of the third movement, with explosive virtuosity that beggared belief. At other times he would be sleeping-kitten gentle, as he’d pick off the last note of a limpid run and point the serving finger in the air.
Yes, Lang Lang is full of affectations you can interpret in many ways. He might indeed be on another plane, lost in a musical trance, or he might be taking the mickey out of the believers. But whatever the motivation, this is what delights audiences, especially those who are not musical purists. They want flinging arms, keyboard assaults and facial expressions of whimsy and ecstasy. This is how they expect a concert pianist to behave and Lang Lang gives it to them in spades. Liberace used to do something similar; admittedly to a lower-brow audience, but in Lang Lang’s case you can never deny that here is one astonishingly good classical pianist by any standard.