Move over Franz, Lang Lang is in the building: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

June 30, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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You know it’s a Sydney Opera House gala celebrity event when the concerto is played last.

Lang Lang at the Opera House Photo: Rae Sturm

This concert was no exception, as the SSO under David Roberson served up some almost-Schubert, then some real Schubert as a grounding aperitif before the appearance of Chinese superstar pianist, Lang Lang. It is also noticeable that the racial mix of the audience changes when Lang Lang comes to play. The local Chinese community turned out in force, taking up all the non-subscriber seats to see their champ, and doubtless included piano students whose parents want them to see where they can go if they practice fanatically.

Lang Lang

More of Lang Lang later. The concert opened with a piece by Luciano Berio (1925 -2003), an Italian composer celebrated by those who love being challenged by contemporary music. In fact, some of Berio’s compositions could be mistaken for practical jokes, especially as he was known for a wacky sense of humour. He once gave back to back lectures on Beethoven’s seventh symphony describing it as it a work of genius in one and pointless rubbish in the other.  But in this instance, he subjugated himself to Schubert by constructing a three-movement symphony from piano music that Schubert intended to turn symphonic but didn’t get around to before he died. The score was only made public in 1978 and Berio produced his adaptive work in 1990, calling it Renderinfor orchestra after fragments for Symphony No. 10 in D, D.936a by Franz Schubert.

Berio wasn’t trying to fool listeners into believing that this was Schubert’s 10th symphony, but rather taking blocks of what Schubert might have orchestrated from piano sketches, and using Berio’s own mortar to bind them. The result is attractive music that often morphs from Schubert into shimmering Berio (who adds a very non-Schubert celeste) before returning to the mother ship.  Conductor, David Robertson, took up a microphone before the performance of the piece to explain, with some enthusiasm, what it was all about.

David Robertson Photo: Ken Butti

One hundred per cent Schubert followed, via his Symphony No, 8 in B minor D759 (The Unfinished). Schubert was a serial unfinisher, and this symphony is only one of many compositions that he would probably have returned to had he lived beyond the age of 35. That said, it has emerged as one of his most popular works even though it has only two movements – along with some sketches for the third: a scherzo. In some ways, it was a pity to play this work of dramatic genius after the enjoyable, but not-in-the-same-street Berio/Schubert.

While Schubert’s Unfinished could have been seen as a curtain raiser for Lang Lang’s Mozart, this was far from the case. Robertson extracted such sensitivity from the orchestra, especially in hushing the strings, that this two-movement symphony won the night – musically.

But Lang Lang was up next. That’s who this capacity audience had come to hear and, maybe, more importantly, see. If you’d mixed the genes of Horowitz and Liberace you might have got a Lang Lang. Those who dismiss him as a serious musician because of his showmanship overlook one of the finest pianists of the current generation. He has a colossal technique and passionate interpretations – although, granted, not always as the composer intended. But he has done more to encourage classical piano than anybody since Liszt.

Fraser Beath McEwing

I did, however, wonder at the choice of the piano concerto: Mozart’s No 24 in C minor, K.491. It is, without doubt, one of Mozart’s most accomplished, but a good choice for a Lang Lang concert? Had the SSO imported a pile driver to crack a walnut? The romantic period volcanic repertoire remained thus undisturbed as Lang Lang strode on to the stage to a thunderous reception and we settled back to hear orderly music from the classical period. Lang Lang, however, had other ideas. He turned Mozart into a romantic composer, partly through his personal choreography at the piano and partly from the way he poured emotion, rather than measured precision, into the performance. Mozart purists might have taken exception to it, but the average concert-goer would have revelled in it. The fact that this performance had something of caricature about it didn’t lessen the enjoyment.

SSO Opera House concert, 29 June

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on www.frasersblography.com 

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