In case you hadn’t noticed, Lang Lang is in town. His bravura display of Chopin Scherzi, coupled with an imaginative ramble through Tchaikovsky’s Seasons in recital last Wednesday, showed the Chinese superstar to be a player capable of fusing technical mastery to a barrow load of ideas, and while it didn’t appear to land with some, to my mind at least it proved him to be a clear case of style and substance. His appearance with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra playing one of the repertoire’s definite warhorses was therefore keenly anticipated, and if it didn’t entirely work it was still a fascinating exercise in at least trying something different to liven up a fairly conservative programme.

The fist half comprised Grieg’s first Peer Gynt Suite coupled with Tchaikovsky’s lesser-played Francesca Da Rimini. The former was an ideal opportunity to listen to some perhaps over-familiar fare with fresh ears – for example, if you let the imagination wander the ubiquitous Morning Mood seems to trace a direct line from Beethoven’s Pastoral through to Tchaikovsky and Wagner, while the Death of Åse surely prefigures Sibelius. Played tolerably well (the SSO string sound was glorious and there were several distinguished oboe solos from Shefali Pryor), these pieces leapt off the page, nicely shaped by Venezuelan maestro and El Sistema graduate Manuel López-Gómez. The gossamer shimmer of Anitra’s Dance and a suitably exciting Hall of the Mountain King rounded off a fine start.

The playing was equally fine in Francesca, one of Tchaikovsky’s less melodically inspired tone poems, which seems overlong at 22 minutes (the gloomy, swirling strings, whistling woodwind and stalking brass is all very well, but it seems an age before we arrive at the ‘big’ tune). Still, it contains some fine dramatic writing and López-Gómez shaped it very nicely indeed from brooding start to cataclysmic finish.

The brief second half was given over entirely to the Grieg Piano Concerto, generally a first half work and a nod presumably to Lang Lang’s superstar status. Grieg lies somewhere in between the twin expressive poles of Chopin in the 19th century and Rachmaninov in the 20th, yet there’s a foursquare stolidity to the Norwegian original that demands acknowledgement. This is music with an honest open-air quality, far removed from the salons of Paris or St. Petersburg. That’s not to say you can’t get away with some interpretive liberties – try Percy Grainger’s barnstorming account! – but it also requires a steady hand on the tiller and a clear sense of external architecture.

Lang Lang hit the opening button alright, crashing in with power and passion, but his reading of the first subject of the Allegro molto moderato was pulled back and forth by what seemed at times conflicting rhythmic and dynamic ideas of his own. As a result it felt lopsided, its halting suspensions more Chopin than Grieg. The conductor, forced to follow suit, found the orchestra occasionally stretched beyond its power to sustain the music. There were moments of brilliance – the first movement cadenza where Grieg allows his soloist his head was captivating, full of original ideas and technical wizardry – but we had to wait until the Adagio for Lang Lang to really come into his own.

The second movement was beautifully finessed, opening with quiet power, its wistful yearning inviting a delicate response from the soloist whose hands fluttered up and down the keys with an impressive lightness of touch, yet firm and powerful in the hymn like second subject. The Allegro moderato molto finale tended to ignore the moderato (let alone the molto). It was often thrilling, but occasionally lost detail due through overuse of the gas pedal. It also felt peculiarly ‘jazzed up’ – an engaging idea and one that made you want to hear Lang Lang play the Gershwin concerto (not something that often comes to mind listening to Grieg!) The second subject took the Rachmaninov treatment well, and there was some radiant pianissimo playing before a driven but thrilling finish.

If all that sounds a mixed bag, to an extent it did seem that way. Lang Lang is clearly a thoughtful, creative artist, and to be honest I’d rather hear ideas that don’t always come off than no ideas at all. As the superstar took his excited applause – even finding time to high-five the timpanist – I felt sufficiently intrigued by what he’ll choose to explore next and hope that, whatever it is, Australia will get the opportunity to have a listen.

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