On Thursday night the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presented its Mid-Season Gala featuring recently-married Chinese pianist Lang Lang. A global superstar ever since his appearance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, he has made too few visits to Melbourne. If I recall correctly, the last visit was about seven years ago when he gave a thoroughly enlightening masterclass at the Melbourne Recital Centre to six eager and talented young pianists. And several years before that there was a truly memorable performance of Tchaikovsky’s virtuoso Piano Concerto No 1 with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when Lang Lang was just starting out in his professional career.
Returning from an arm injury that saw him withdraw from concerts during parts of 2017 and 2018, Lang Lang has largely confined his performances in the last 12 months to Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor K 491, one of the Salzburg composer’s most lyrical, elegiac utterances, and one which requires a very different type of virtuosity and musicianship than that which established Lang Lang’s early career and celebrity. Unsurprisingly, this concert sold out long ago as wide-eyed piano students mingled with more-seasoned concert-goers at a jam-packed Hamer Hall, many eager to hear the 37-year-old pianist for the first time.
The Concerto in C minor holds a unique place amongst Mozart’s stellar contribution to the concerto oeuvre, and many commentators regard it as his finest. One of only two in a minor key, it employs the largest woodwind section of all the concertos, has an opening movement in an unusual triple time meter, and, significantly, it had a profound influence on Beethoven, whose own Piano Concerto in C minor contains clear motivic echoes of K 491.
Tonight’s reading was one that highlighted the Mozartean elegance and refinement of the score. Internal drama was understated, with musical characterisation always contained within the Classical confines of the sensibly reduced-sized orchestra – restraint and measured balance being the order of the day. Never the diva, Lang Lang played as if with a cohort of long-standing chamber colleagues, often turning sideways to interact with the woodwind in a manner that was notably reminiscent of his outing over a decade ago with the MSO in Tchaikovsky’s Concerto. Not all soloists bother with this level of musical engagement, and Lang Lang, for all his celebrity and star-billing, seemingly regards himself as primus inter pares. A musician amongst fellow musicians. And the end musical result was glorious.
From the outset, Lang Lang’s playing was characterised by pearl-like articulation of impeccable clarity, exquisitely-judged phrasing, and sympathetic balance with the orchestra, exploring a vast tonal palette from the most hushed ppp, to abrupt, yet never harsh sforzati surprises. It was worth coming just for the melancholic, almost meditative first movement opening statement. Yet the second movement Larghetto was even more compelling as Lang Lang brought an infinitely nuanced, liquid-gold tone to this quietly rapturous, undemonstrative interlude. In the finale variations, his feather-like touch dazzled, but when needed, short volcanic eruptions provided stark contrast that heightened Mozart’s acute musical characterisation. This was a performance to savour, gripping from first note to last, and the MSO provided unfailingly attentive and sympathetic support. But it was Lang Lang’s star that shone brightest, for he is a musician of uncommon sensibility and refinement. Moreover, he lives and breathes every note of the score, whether playing or not. A conducting future surely beckons, but let’s hope that he is not drawn in that direction too soon.
The concert opened with the tautly-constructed Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the first of the three enormously successful da Ponte operas, and which like the Concerto in C minor was written in 1786, a highly productive year for the Salzburg composer. This time conducting with baton, Kirill Karabits drew from the MSO an equally refined, unhurried, but superbly elegant Overture, one that was nonetheless bustling with energy, and characterised by incisive rhythmic precision and gripping sforzato interjections.
After interval and now at full-strength, the MSO delivered, albeit after a slightly shaky beginning, a thoroughly compelling reading of Rachmaninov’s too-infrequently heard Symphony No 3. Under the disciplined, yet supple direction of Maestro Karabits, this was a well-paced reading, noteworthy for the lushly ardent lyricism of the strings in the opening movement, sympathetically-crafted horn, harp, violin, cello and flute solos in the second movement, and the vividly kaleidoscopic orchestral colours of the finale.
But it has to be said the night belonged to Lang Lang, whose musicianship, sincerity and generosity of spirit were inspiring. Huge thanks are owing to Marc Besen AC and Eva Besen AO for enabling this concert to happen. A night of unqualified pleasure.
Glenn Riddle reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Mid-Season Gala concert featuring Lang Lang given at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on July 4, 2019.