Timeless tunes and varied virility
As the world's best-known classical pianist - recognized by tens of millions in China alone - Lang Lang is capable of special merchandizing feats, such as selling out Roy Thomson Hall on a midweek evening with a student ensemble, as he did on Tuesday. But was the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra, even under the baton of an established conductor like Christoph Eschenbach, a fair match for the star soloist?
First we should disabuse ourselves of the promotional claim that this north-German academy for under-27-year-olds comprises "the world's finest young musicians." The McGill Symphony Orchestra has negotiated rhythms just as tautly and the Royal Conservatory Orchestra strings have sounded more lustrous.
These players were not above ragged entries, rounded corners and chords of dubious clarity. Happily, they also produced a current of feeling that stripped the polish from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and restored its elemental power.
It might even be said that Eschenbach's interest in inner detail and antiphonal effects (the violins were laid out on opposite sides) worked well with the unsynthesized Schleswig-Holstein sound. Curvature was pronounced and stresses were strong. You heard the score thoroughly, even with some pinches and bites.
Striving for maximum excitement, the conductor ran the movements together, timing the sombre opening of the Allegretto as a continuation of the triumphant final cadence of the first movement. No brow-mopping or cufflink-adjusting in this band.
Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 (Classical), played with a full complement of musicians, was less successful. Slower-than-usual tempos, at least in the first three movements, created a galumphing effect. Crisp bassoons and lithe violins are needed to realize the wit of the piece.
And Lang Lang? He proved a paragon of tonal refinement in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, stretching lines languidly in the Andante and casting the outer movements as exercises in serenity. The musicians behaved themselves accordingly.
As an encore the pianist offered Chopin's Etude Op. 25 No.1, its arpeggios as soft as the zephyrs of a summer day. Tempos were stretched to the max. Part a plan to reconnect modern pianism with its 19th-century roots?
The pianist's stage deportment also spans the decades, the spiky hair and designer suit making an odd match for extravagant swaying and broad arm gestures that evoke the age of the salon. Adding to the time paradoxes was Eschenbach, monastically outfitted in black and looking about two-thirds of his 70 years. He extended his firmness to the crowd, requiring everyone toa sit down and listen to an encore, Beethoven's Prometheus Overture, ruggedly done.
So do we prefer our musicians young or old, student or pro, rough or supple? How pleasant to have a choice.