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Lang Lang Plays Bartók with the New York Philharmonic

 by FoM

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As much as I hesitate to admit it, the Phil is doing some good stuff these days. Last week, they had Mehta doing Bruckner 8; the week before that, it was Mahler 9 (with or without the marimba heard around the world.) And, then there's this week's program, which features three balls-out pieces that will jolt even the deadest of subscribers out of their slumber. 

Magnus Lindberg, who is his final year as the Phil's composer in residence, was in the house on Thursday night (when I attended) to hear his Feria (1997): a wild, primal work supposedly inspired by the exuberant energy of Spanish open-air festivals. To my ears, there was nothing Spanish about it: if anything, it sounded like one of Varese's more jarring symphonic outbursts, with propulsive percussion and earth-shaking brass. 

The centerpiece of the program was Bartók's fiendishly difficult 2nd Piano Concerto, played here by the celebrated pianist Lang Lang (who, incidentally, calls NYC his home, at least when he's not touring.) This was the first time I've heard this 20th century masterpiece live, though it's becoming more frequently programmed these days as pianists discover its virtuoso qualities: András Schiff played it at Carnegie just this past October as part of his season-long tribute to Bartók.

New york philharmonic lang lang 1-19-2012 8-38-37 PMI've only seen Lang Lang perform on a couple of other occasions, and while he is obviously a remarkable pianist, his over-the-top histrionics strike me (and many others) as offputting. Case in point: when Lang took the stage last night in his styled hair and sharkskin suit (sans tie), he grandiously gestured at the audience, as if he were some sort of monarch.

But, if there's one composer who could rein in this superconfident kid, it's Bartók: a radical departure for someone who's made his name performing the big Romantic classics of Liszt and Tchiakovsky. Indeed, for the first time that I'm aware of, Lang resorted to performing from a score, shrunk down and printed six-per-page. (It wasn't immediately clear if Lang was short on preparation time, or if the score was simply too daunting for him to perform from memory; others have had no such trouble.)

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The first movement starts right in with the piano, with Lang's fingers flying all over the keyboard in a flurry of notes that were virtually indistinguishable from one another. In between these outbursts, the trumpets continually sounded a heroic fanfare while the winds grounded things in a more contemplative vein. Gilbert placed both the winds and brass stage right, purposefully bringing their sound front and center with Lang's piano.

The middle movement Adagio was the most stunning not because of its virtuosity, but because of its incredibly somber tone: aside from the piano, the orchestration consists solely of strings and a slow, rumbling timpani. Save for a brief, turbulent Presto - which serves as a respite from the overwhelming darkness - this is music of extreme doom and despair. To his credit, Lang kept himself in check, staying with Gilbert's extremely slow tempo without glossing over the movement's intensely harsh dissonances. By the end, I was left feeling deeply disturbed, even haunted.


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The final movement (Allegro Molto) brought us back into the light. Lang was like an animal unleashed, literally slapping at the piano without once missing one of Bartók's complex chords. The orchestra was also firing on all cylinders: strings, percussion and brass fanfares all coming together, bringing the work to its bright, almost abrupt conclusion.

After several curtain calls to unusually tepid applause (save for the enthusiastic teenager who stormed down the aisle with a bouquet of spring flowers), Lang offered up a surprising encore: Liszt's quiet, tender Consolation No. 2. Lang played it as if in a trance, his body moving in a constant circular motion. It's very possible that Lang had a second, more exciting encore prepared, but the Phil audience didn't stick around long enough to hear it.

New york philharmonic lang lang 1-19-2012 9-49-19 PMAfter the Bartók, Prokofiev's 5th - a dyed-in-the-wool chestnut full of bombast and bluster - felt almost like an afterthought. But, Gilbert did extract a pretty clean performance from the Phil, with lots of snap and crackle - particularly from percussionists Chris Lamb and Dan Druckman, who continue to amaze three decades into their careers. Too bad the same can't be said of the Phil's string section, which continues to harbor players well beyond their prime. (The Phil, unlike most great orchestras, has no mandatory retirement age.)

If you haven't been yet, there's one more performance of the program tonight at 8pm. Tickets are still available at the Avery Fisher box office or online.

Bartok Statue budapest(Statue of Bartók outside his home in Budapest.)

More pics on the photo page.