Review: Rach 1 and Mahler’s 10th, Philadelphia Orchestra feat. Lang Lang

Wednesday, May 11 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Lang Lang, piano

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1891)
Mahler, Symphony No. 10 (1910, Deryck Cooke 1976 ed.)

For as much as certain NYT critics love to dismiss the Philadelphia Orchestra for conservative programming, it is worth remembering that not all pieces by well-known composers are necessarily accessible.  Case in point: tonight’s concert, the season’s final appearance of my most beloved ensemble at Carnegie Hall, featuring two of the most recognizable composers at their least recognizable junctures.

Rachmaninoff composed his first concerto when he was just 17 years old, and it is said that he had modeled the piece after Grieg’s invigorating piano concerto.  Then he would revise it after finishing his much better known second and third concertos.  You can indeed hear the progression of his style in the music: the first movement, a youthful call to arms of sorts, is reminiscent of the first movement of Grieg’s concerto, the second movement, a quieter introspection, is similar thematically to the second movement of Rach 2, and the percussive finale derives most of its emotions from rhythm instead of melody, much like the finale of Rach 3.  Maybe because the composer was so young when he first worked on the piece, or maybe it’s because he had gone back to revise it decades later, while the First exhibits nearly all elements of Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous lyricism, it lacks the  narrative and cohesiveness of his better known works.  Theoretically, this presents an interesting interpretive opportunity for the soloist.  Though nominally rarely performed, I last attended a performance of Rach 1 in early 2015 with Daniil Trifonov as the soloist and remarked at the time that the 23 year old pianist had impressed with precocious control and youthful abandonment in equal measures.

Lang Lang, on the other hand, is virtuosic and frustrating in equal measures.  Truth be told, if it hadn’t been the Philadelphia Orchestra, I probably wouldn’t have attended the concert because Lang Lang is not good enough of a pianist for me to withstand his stage antics.  On this night, his calisthenics weren’t as exaggerated as the last time I saw him (quite a few years ago, playing Liszt), save for an inexplicable airplane arms pose at the end of cadenzas, though from where I was sitting I was treated to a prime display of his facial contortions.  Look, it’s hard to separate Lang Lang the pianist from Lang Lang the brand, but if we were to be fair, we should acknowledge that Rach 1 is a good choice for him.  As the piece itself has some structural issues, the artist’s gaudy showmanship highlighted the piece’s technical prowess without reminding the audience of its lack of finer nuances and inner consistency, and really that’s a favor the piece returns for the artist in question as well.  I would have preferred the first and last movements to be played more crisply, but certainly things could have been worse–this could have been Lang Lang playing Rach 3, or he could have had to take the stage without the support of Rachamninoff’s favorite orchestra, which, by the way, was game as ever.

Shortly after Yannick returned to the stand for the second half of the program, there were two curious observations of note.  One, many in the audience had left–because they were only there for the pianist, or because they were purists who couldn’t imagine sitting through a re-imagined Mahler?  And two, Yannick appeared much more demure than usual.  As a seating shuffle (despite all the empty seats!) delayed the start of the symphony, instead of sitting down on the conductor’s podium and watching in pretend amusement as he has done multiple times in the past, Yannick remained solemn if a little impatient.  He was about to conduct Mahler’s Tenth after all, drafted as the composer became aware of his wife’s cheating while his own health was failing.  Mahler died before completing the work and only orchestrated the first movement, and the version performed by the orchestra tonight was completed by musicologist Deryck Cooke in the 1970s.  Finishing the work of a titan always presents an uncomfortable conundrum: if the end result is plausible, it will probably be criticized for being artificially so.  Cooke’s version of Mahler’s Tenth certainly sounds Mahlerian, with its overarching struggle interspersed with almost childlike scherzos.  It reminds me of Mahler’s First in structure and seamless integration of life and death motifs.  But whereas Mahler’s First is full of delights and ultimately hopeful, his last symphony is downright chilling, as if the mental state of someone slipping in and out of lucidity.  Indisputably the composer’s most dissonant symphony, some believe that Mahler would have gone over completely to the dark, I mean, atonal side had he lived.  Personally I think the causality is the other way around: Mahler knew his life was nearing its end and thus saved the most dissonant for last.  Whichever way you slice it, this is a difficult piece, and being so early in the week, the orchestra was a bit off–understandably, if still somewhat uncharacteristically.  The strings were first rate as always, but the winds were a little messy.  It didn’t seem to matter, at least not to Yannick, who seemed completely spent but content at the finish.  I’ve seen the man play an hour of chamber music after conducting a full concert, I’ve seen him ripping his tux after an extremely physical 2.5 hours on the podium, and I’ve seen him conduct Mahler’s Second.  But this is the first time that I’ve seen him leave everything on the stage with nothing left.  I’ve said this before and I will say it again: critics be damned, I love this man and this band.  May we all grow together for many more years to come.
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