S&H Concert review

PROM 43: Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor
Tchaikovsky Symphony No 1, 'Winter Daydreams'
Lang Lang pf; St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra / Yuri Temirkanov
Wednesday 22 August, 2001 (SD)

Tonight's all Russian programme paired an increasingly popular concerto (particularly since its role in the film Shine) with a pioneering and unjustly neglected symphony. The young Chinese pianist Lang Lang, making his London concerto debut, dazzled the audience with his phenomenal technique, while Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic's reading of Tchaikovsky's First Symphony was both pithy and economical.

According to The New York Herald, reviewing Rachminonov's Third Piano Concerto at the Carnegie Hall premiere (played by the composer), 'its great length and extreme difficulties [would] bar it from performances by any but pianists of exceptional technical powers.' This prediction was borne out in the first part of the last century, but then a new generation of virtuosos, from Horowitz to Ashkenazy and Argerich, began to champion the work. On the platform tonight, Lang Lang displayed striking athleticism and ebullience coupled with tender lyricism. But his unassuming opening, indicative of things to come, would have benefited from greater weight and deliberateness: the first theme, after all, is thought to derive (even if subconsciously) from an old Russian monastic chant. The strings answered the piano's opening statement with a veritable wall of lush sound. In the cadenza, Lang Lang's iron fingers provided the requisite power and urgency, but didn't communicate the passion of, say, Argerich. He achieved great clarity of line and articulation in the Intermezzo and, if he had to work hard to compete with the brass in the finale, this was the fault of the conductor rather than the soloist. The performance was certainly a tour de force, but to my mind Lang Lang doesn't yet feel the Concerto in his bones.

The St Petersburg players were on splendid form in Tchaikovsky's early Winter Daydreams symphony, composed with great effort by the composer, with no real Russian symphonic tradition on which to draw. Temirkanov conducted a clean, well-articulated, bittersweet first movement, though horn and cellos were out of tune at the start of the development. Strings played with silken legato in the Adagio, the oboe picking up their melody with a marvellously fluid and creamy tone and the flute's interjections pleasingly bright. The strident horns in the recapitulation had an appropriate world-weariness, in stark contrast to the mood of the effortlessly light and airy Scherzo. After the deliberate 'false starts' of the finale's introduction, the build-up to a tutti ff climax was truly exhilarating, with well-drilled upper strings and crisp counterpoint in the ensuing fugal passage. The Russian folksong of the second subject had plenty of zest and native swagger, and the whole combined to make a very convincing performance, earning the orchestra two encores.

Sarah Dunlop

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