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Lang Lang’s Fans Eschew Bartok


de Burgos conducts Lang Lang (Stu Rosner photo)
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos conducts Lang Lang (Stu Rosner photo)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this weekend continue the guest conductorship of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, in a program sandwiching the ultimate Rachmaninoff warhorse between two great BSO-commissioned works by Hindemith and Bartók. For the Thursday night performance, the house was sold out. Notwithstanding that the audience contained many younger faces, the thinning out at intermission spoke volumes about malformed cultural education; more on this later.

Frühbeck, now 80 and walking with difficulty, did most of his conducting seated, in front of an orchestra missing a fair number of its leading players: Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe,  Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova , and Assistant Principal Cello Martha Babcock were hors de combat. Assistant Concertmaster Elita Kang filled in for Lowe except for the Rachmaninoff, which, our vision not misleading us, was led by Julianne Lee. Sato Knudsen moved up to fill Babcock’s chair. Frühbeck began the program with Paul Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass, op. 50, which the BSO under Koussevitzky commissioned for the orchestra’s 50th Anniversary in 1931. This commissioning program also yielded up Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and many other major works by some of the best composers of the period. Compared to the Stravinsky, of course, all the others pale, but the Hindemith is interesting (if maybe not “one of the most thrilling orchestral works of the twentieth century,” as Hugh Macdonald’s program note gushed) and should be heard more often. It was one of a series of pieces he called “concert music” as a parallel to the ones he called “chamber music” written in his and the century’s raucous twenties. It came near the beginning of Hindemith’s transition from his nose-thumbing youth to the highly systematic, some might say pedantic, products of later years. In other words, there are strong elements of the classic Hindemith sound without the sense that it was being produced by formula. In two segmented movements, it has some arresting melodies and rhythms, a brilliant command of color in an unusual instrumental palette, and a compositional security that had not yet been over-displayed. It is an ebullient piece, like a two movement festive overture.

Hindemith chose to offset three quartets of brass instruments—four trumpets, four horns, and three trombones and a tuba—against a “quartet” of strings in which first and second violins were massed together as a single part, so that violins, violas, cellos and basses constituted the separate lines. The BSO players, especially the brasses, were all over it and could not have made more joyous noise with it. Where the performance proved less satisfactory was in the heavy-handedness with which Frühbeck kept pounding out more sound with rather little nuance; he kept waving his hand at the strings for more volume, but never told anyone to lighten up. There are better recorded performances that convey more of Hindemith’s playfulness in this piece.

The hall was full (we doubt it was for the Hindemith) because Elvis was in the building, in the form of pianistic megastar Lang Lang, improbably making his BSO subscription series debut, but not at all improbably by playing that Seabiscuit of warhorses, the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, op. 18. In a program insert, the BSO advised that the concert (which had already been designated the Henry Lee Higginson Memorial Concert) would be dedicated to the memory of Van Cliburn. One cannot imagine a more fitting program for the dedication; Lang Lang is among those few classical artists who convey the same rock-star aura Cliburn did in his prime.

It is a perhaps interesting that this most popular of Rachmaninoff’s works is one of his relatively few that concentrates its compositional focus on melody, which it delivers in spades. It is actually also a rather well put together piece, and a good deal less diffuse than others of the composer’s œuvre. There is more going on in the orchestra than is often found in pianistic showpieces, and Frühbeck, standing most of the time for this, was not about to let the audience forget about it. Some major solos from within the orchestra deserve particular mention, such as Michael Winter’s luxuriant yet sharp-edged horn passage near the end of the first movement and Thomas Martin’s rendition of the principal tune in the second, featuring some high-concept diffidence. In general, Frühbeck took great pains to clarify lines and spotlight the contrasts, particularly in the last movement, between the frenetic and poetic (sometimes bordering on lethargic) poles of Rachmaninoff’s “russissimo” style.

So what about the soloist? Of chops he has no end, of mannerisms likewise. The opening chords of the concerto, for piano alone, were well conceived and wrought: a crescendo from nothing up to just a mezzo forte, at which point the orchestra joins in. The slow movement was truly ravishing, with both soloist and conductor fully in sync in squeezing out its expressivity without descending to bathos. The outer movements were a mixed bag—best in quiet moments, a bit workmanlike and underwhelming in the clangorous ones. Lang Lang’s many sideward glances to the audience, alas, reminded us of the hackneyed traditions of 19th century virtuosos, as well as a certain performer who liked to keep candelabra on the piano. That said, it seemed that Lang Lang was trying to say something interesting about this piece, but either he couldn’t establish a consistent point of view or the public expectations for such a work and the éclat surrounding his first appearance with the BSO at Symphony Hall just kept getting in the way. Maybe he should try again with Mozart or…Bartók.

Which brings us to the closer, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Of all the great works the BSO has commissioned, this one from 1943 continues to be owned by the orchestra more than any other. We’re not privy to the backstage lore or the socialization process of BSO musicians, but we’d like to think there’s some process by which anyone brought into the orchestra has got to absorb this colossus of the 20th century orchestral repertoire, as if it were a racial memory. To hear the BSO play it is a privilege (and to hear anyone play it live is a revelation in color and dynamics in comparison to any recorded performance). This should explain our dismay when even younger audience members filtered out during intermission. It wasn’t a mass movement by any means, but it was enough to confirm that too many still can’t see “what makes it great.” In the event, these exodists missed something really special. The many brass and wind solo and small-group performances (notably in the second movement “game of pairs”) were truly extraordinary, and Frühbeck, as an outsider, made significant contributions in pointing up phrase endings and ensuring clarity of line. His take on the piece was a bit harder-edged than some of the lush performances BSO music directors have given (e.g. Leinsdorf and Ozawa), except that he took full advantage of the colors Bartók painted for the “night music” sections of the slow movement, around a fulsomely impassioned center.

There is no point sugarcoating the fact that composers, like other creative artists, are not always the best judges of their own or their colleagues’ work. Bartók made merciless fun of Shostakovich in the fourth movement “interrupted intermezzo,” and this was doubtless due to pure ignorance of his parodic victim’s need to dissemble in order to survive in Stalin’s USSR. Be that as it may, the brass’s raspberries were brilliantly rendered. Our one regret was Frühbeck’s reticence with Bartók’s grand melody in this movement, one of the two greatest tunes of 20th century classical music (the other, since you asked, is Villa-Lobos’s from the fifth Bachianas Brasileiras). Frühbeck’s leadership of the finale was characterized by a perfectly judged momentum in tempo and dynamics which brought the audience from the edge of its seats to its feet. If you can catch one of the remaining performances, don’t pass it up.

Ed. Note: Names have been corrected in this review in response observations from readers.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


17 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. If we’re noting the absence of principal players for the Hindemith, we can also say that Michael Winter replaced James Sommerville in the first chair of the horns in the curtain-raiser.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 2, 2013 at 7:48 am

  2. Clarifying the roster on Thursday – Richard Sebring played 1st horn in the Hindemith and Bartok, Michael Winter played 1st in the Rachmaninoff. Also, Thomas Martin played 1st clarinet in the Rachmaninoff and William R. Hudgins played 1st in the Bartok. Details aside, the review captures both the atmosphere and performance/interpretive details from Thursday really well. An interesting option for this program arises on Tuesday, April 2, when the Hindemith and Bartok are reprised but Lang Lang is replaced by Garrick Ohlsson playing the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

    Comment by Gerry — March 2, 2013 at 8:45 am

  3. Thanks for the eagle-eyed observers pointing out the other substitutions, and my apologies to those players whom I thereby inadvertently slighted.. From where I sat I couldn’t see farther back than the strings. Time constraints prevented me from double-checking with the orchestra before sending in my copy.

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 2, 2013 at 10:48 am

  4. No problem, Vance, but those of us up front could easily see that the concertmaster for the Rachmaninoff was Julianne Lee.

    A very informative and perceptive review, by the way, of a fascinating concert. The pianism of Elvi…er, Lang Lang is really quite remarkable, and I would say that it is well-matched to Rach 2 on the whole. I imagine, though, that tonight (Sat) he will play the opening chords JUST a tad bit more quickly than he did on Thursday night, which robbed them of some of their emotional force. And there’s the rub with this titanically gifted pianist: in his recitals and concerto appearances he often undermines the power of the music by being TOO ‘expressive’, with grand ritardandos and swollen rubato bringing the flow to a halt. Great as he is, he tends to fawn over lyrical passages that just want to be…lyrical.

    Having said that, though, one must also acknowledge that few pianists – Rachmaninoff among them – have ever mustered the kind of power the composer calls for in the big passages, especially in the outer movements. There’s a reason that people went crazy over Elvis – he WAS ‘The King’ – and on Thursday night even those like myself who found plenty of things not quite working could hardly fail to be moved by the bold drama and masterful storytelling in LL’s performance. He does have something new and interesting to say about this piece – in fact, quite a few! – because he is a sincere, probing artist on a steep trajectory of development. I don’t fault him his mannerisms, either, since as far as I can see (and I’ve been close to his performances many times) they have absolutely nothing to do with 19th century European virtuosi and everything to do with LL’s background and temperament as a communicator. One could say that he is that anti-Michelangeli. I loved ABD, but we’re all the better for having many different kinds of pianistic geniuses.

    As for the orchestra, they really seemed to grow more in sync with LL as the piece progressed on Thursday night. I wish I could be sitting there tonight to see how the collaboration is developing, but on Thursday the musicians were bright, shiny, and very engaged in the Rach 2. Actually, they seemed to enjoy the result nearly as much as the audience.

    As for the Hindemith, I heard it a lot like Vance: the brass were glorious, but things could have been somewhat more transparent overall. This might have allowed more of the jaunty score to emerge into hearing.

    I didn’t notice a huge exodus at intermission – perhaps a few dozen out of 2500 – but those who left did miss a treat. I had the impression, though, that this was not the most successful Bartók CFO I’d heard the orchestra play – each of the last two times affected me a bit more, although the details are not available to me at the moment. This has more to do with the conductor’s approach to the piece than anything else, though – as in the Hindemith, I would have appreciated Frühbeck de Burgos going for a bit more limpidity and subtlety in a few places. Overall, though, this commission was a wonderful gift from the BSO that keeps on giving.

    Comment by nimitta — March 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm

  5. One more thing: too bad that the headline for this excellent review isn’t about the music, artists, or performances. Kind of misses the point, I think.

    Comment by nimitta — March 2, 2013 at 1:11 pm

  6. Thanks to Gerry for correcting my faulty memory about when Michael Winters was in the first chair.

    One thing that surprised me Thursday evening was that even with a lengthy ovation and I don’t know how many curtain calls (because the people between me and the stage were standing and blocking my view) Lang Lang did not give an encore.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — March 2, 2013 at 5:42 pm

  7. Aren’t there already enough penguins around? We need more Elvis!

    Comment by Teni Davison — March 3, 2013 at 5:15 pm

  8. “He does have something new and interesting to say about this piece – in fact, quite a few”

    I was not there, but I borrowed his R2 recording before.

    I thought he was very inventive for playing louder and louder after the strings started to play, effectly rejecting their entry. Perhaps he thought he had the answer for Rachmaninov’s own 2nd theme problem … Well, even that was not entirely new. I had heard that kind of thing before.

    Please enlighten us. what was new(quite a few)? of course, they say there are no two identical leaves on earth.

    Comment by Thorsten — March 3, 2013 at 6:02 pm

  9. Orchestras and their, as it were, racial memories. As far as I can puzzle out, Serge Koussevitzky, who lived to 1951, never conducted the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra again after its first performances in 1944. And Charles Munch, the BSO’s Music Director from 1949 to 1962, never conducted it at all. With Erich Leinsdorf in the 1960s and countless conductors since, the annals at last start to bulk up.

    But my intuition — correct me if I’m wrong! — is that for a couple of decades the piece was played a lot more often elsewhere — e.g., Amsterdam, New York — than it was here in Boston. WHAT performance tradition?

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 3, 2013 at 10:07 pm

  10. And yet, the BSO’s Tanglewood archives feature a 1956 performance with Pierre Monteux. They wouldn’t likely have played it cold out there on one or two rehearsals.

    Comment by Camilli — March 3, 2013 at 10:58 pm

  11. Actually, the program notes on reference pre-Leinsdorf performances led by Burgin, Ansermet, Monteux, Dorati, Schippers, and Ormandy. Koussevitzky repeated the work a few weeks after the premiere and then led performances in New York in 1945.

    Comment by Camilli — March 3, 2013 at 11:05 pm

  12. The point I was making — to myself, anyway — was that the BSO doesn’t — because it couldn’t — have the music in its bones, so to speak, the way that seems to be the case with Mahler and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. And is there any evidence at all that Bartok composed the piece with the BSO’s idiosyncratic sonorities in mind? Some composers, we know, did; and some didn’t.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 4, 2013 at 12:00 am

  13. I was listening Saturday night live broadcast over FM, just first part. I never was a big fan of Lang Lang and was not expected anything stimulating from the concert. In reality Rachmaninoff concerto turned out to be more “interesting” then my low expectations were… but it was a twist in this interest.

    Lang Lang, in my highly disqualified medical opinion, needs a psychologycal help. He clearly suffers from lack of sense of artistic actions, at least the artistic actions that I value. The way how he played the Rachmaninoff Second make me to wonder what he is trying to accomplish. Some of the moments Lang demonstrated were probably the most appealing moments I heard in the Second. At the same time some of the moments Lang exposed were so pathetic that they make me to ask myself what the pianist with THAT play does in the Symphony Hall stage.

    As I am thinking about it further on this Monday morning I feel that the concert was pretty much a sequence of very skillfully position highly pleasurable traps. I did like those traps, hey, that is why they called traps! I do like sometimes BigMac from McDonalds but it does not mean that it elevates BigMac from being FDA-poisoned garbage food to be some kind of delicatessen. With all my appreciation of those brilliantly polished traps that Lang Lang spread across his Rachmaninoff Second concerto I think that it is very wrong way to play music. Playing a concerto is not just setting up a framework for audiences to like you. It has to be a higher service performed by a musician and perhaps a psychologist, (or even better: a proper music teacher) would explain it to Mr. Lang.

    A few words about BSO play during the concert. When you moved your clothes from washer to dryer you observe a pile of shapeless, gray, and twisted fabrics. That is how BSO sounded in Saturday. It was not BSO fault but it was how WCRB MADE BSO to sound on RADIO. As rich and elegant the Lang’s piano sounded as horrible the rest orchestra was made to sound on radio. It was just a wall of gray noise where was impossible to distinct anything, to hear anything or even to comment upon anything.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — March 4, 2013 at 8:32 am

  14. The recent death of David Hamilton, one of the most valuable writers on music this country has ever produced, seems to have gone almost unnoticed. No appreciative article in the Times — or anywhere else — just a paid notice.

    This sampling — — shows some of the qualities that made him, over the decades, such an indispensable read.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 4, 2013 at 12:55 pm

  15. I berated a couple of my students who skipped out on the best piece on the program. Nationalism is fine and fun, but when it blinds people to the beauty that rises us above it; a true sense of humanity, I am disappointed.

    Comment by Aaron — March 4, 2013 at 4:54 pm

  16. As I recall the commentary of the late Hungarian musicologist Ivan Waldbauer, the “grand melody” that offsets Bartok’s Shostakovich travesty is also a borrowed motif, by a 19th century composer of urban neo-Hungarica. Sorry that my memory is not more precise on this point. At any rate, if it’s so, that makes the movement doubly ironic.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — March 8, 2013 at 8:17 am

  17. Re the above-mentioned “grand melody”:

    (1) ” … In addition to the emphasis on the tritone as well as unequal-beat patterns in the opening oboe theme of the fourth movement, which suggests a Slovak folk style, a composed, pseudo-folksong melody of Zsigmond Vincze, ‘You are lovely, you are beautiful, Hungary,’ appears as the main viola theme of the middle section (bars 42-50).”

    (2) ” … A final squeal from the woodwind, dispersing the merriment (hollow laughter at best) and then, with heart-rending poignancy, Bartok brings back not the first theme from the earlier, lyrical section, but the lusher second, with its overt Hungarian associations. The first theme reappears a few bars later.

    “The emotional effect of this odd sequence of events is most disturbing. To all intents and purposes the two lyrical themes are charming, slightly sad and rather delicate. But the Shostakovich episode gives them, both in retrospect and in their reappearance, an added depth; the movement becomes a bitter comment on life and its disruption. If this is wit, it is wit of the most profound psychological penetration.”

    * * *

    (1) is from Elliott Antokoletz’s article on the Concerto for Orchestra in “The Bartok Companion,” ed. Malcolm Gillies (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1993); (2) is from John McCabe’s “Bartok Orchestral Music” (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974) in the BBC Music Guide series.

    Comment by Richard Buell — March 8, 2013 at 3:54 pm

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