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S & H Concert Review

Stravinsky, Beethoven, Prokofiev; Lang Lang (pf), London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski (conductor); RFH, 9th June, 2004 (AR)



What made this beautifully balanced programme a truly ‘musical’ evening was the sensitive and stylish direction of conductor Vladimir Jurowski. This was not a mere run-through as many RFH concerts seem to be these days but an evening of truly great conducting and orchestral playing of international standard - and it was being taped for the LPO’s archives.

Igor Stravinsky’s Divertimento – (Suite from Le baiser de la fée) was given a refreshingly angular, tough and grainy performance with Jurowski teasing out the rugged nature of the outer movements with the horns and trombones playing with crisp precision. The conductor brought out the post-romantic pastiche elements in the Danses suisses with warm, full-bodied playing from the LPO strings.

Lang Lang’s pristine playing of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto in C, Op.15 was perfect – eerily perfect and totally lacking in personality. This was the problem: all three movements sounded soulless and monochromatic with no distinctive difference in mood, pitch and dynamism. What was so depressing about this monotonously ‘perfectly played’ account was that it lacked any trace of instinctive feeling; - it all felt as if the pianist was simply not there. I had the immediate impression of a Microsoft Computer sitting on the pianist’s stool.

Getting the notes right will never be a problem for someone possessed of Lang Lang’s exemplary technique but making music is not merely about getting the notes right. In his case, the occasional wrong note would be a small price to pay for endearing spontaneity.

What distinguishes a great musician from a mere virtuoso is interpretative insight. With a great artist there is always an element of risk and danger but not with Lang Lang. He came across as a computerised automaton plugged into the piano: every gesture was that of a well-rehearsed poseur. Without meaning to sound culturist – subjective feeling seems alien to many Chinese musicians today, who play with a regimented precision but seem not to understand or, more importantly perhaps, love the music.

Among Lang Lang’s most irritating and affected mannerisms were the conducting-type gestures of his raised left hand which some members of the audience found amusing or distracting. What saved Lang Lang’s ‘non-performance’ from total oblivion was the dynamic conducting of Jurowski and the deeply expressive playing of the LPO. Lang Lang’s encore was Träumerei from Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen but his over-acting merely produced turgid and mannered playing. This was not Lang Lang’s concert.

The RFH audience was drastically reduced after the Lang Lang contingent left and missed the highlight of the evening: a magnetic performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s underrated and rarely performed Fourth Symphony, Opus 112 (revised version).

The Andante-Allegro eroico was conducted with great swagger with Jurowski securing dark and brooding playing from the LPO; again the superb horns and trombones shone through while the strings had warmth and weight. The Andante tranquillo - based on the ballet scene of the Prodigal’s Son’s homecoming – sounded like a ghostly fox trot while the Allegro risoluto had a graceful swaggering lilt.

The Allegro risoluto echoes the first movement in its energetic march rhythms with appropriately brutish playing from the brass and bass drum having intense impact and again Jurowski brought out the powerful throbbing energy of the score giving the sensation of industrial machinery. The symphony concluded with a torrent of wild energy.

Vladimir Jurowski is a very refined and mature conductor who has total rapport with his players, so one expects great things from his time as Principal Guest Conductor with the LPO.

Alex Russell

Further Listening:

Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Concertos 1-5; Pierre-Laurent Aimard (pf); Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor); 3 CDs: Teldec: 47334.

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