An opening night at Tanglewood encompasses more than the music—it can be seen as a cultural gauge, mirroring the sensibilities and tastes of a discerning public. Many among the large and ebullient crowd in the Shed and on the lawn had come to celebrate the return of the 36-year-old superstar pianist Lang Lang, who has been recovering for much of the past year from an overuse injury to his left hand. Cheer him they did. Friday’s throngs started arriving as soon as the gates opened, on a near-perfect picnic afternoon.
The resplendent and charismatic soloist, also renowned as an arts and humanities ambassador, an educator and a philanthropist, played Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Minor, No. 24, K. 491 (1785-6) instead of the originally announced Tchaikovsky concerto, perhaps due to the need to go easy on his left hand, which has taken so long to heal. This particular Mozart concerto, written in 1785-6, one of two of in a minor mode, directly influenced the near-contemporary Beethoven’s own Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, a key that Beethoven favored for his most dramatic works.
Too much has been said about Lang’s stage demeanor, when describing his sound would seem the more appropriate currency. His polished but somewhat bland reading tonight left little of the drama or power of K 491 emerging. This Mozart concerto should never be scaled down to miniature proportions, yet, it was conveyed in such a delicate and intimate manner as often to be barely audible. The allegro first movement cadenza, on this night a version Lang wrote to honor the legendary pianist Lili Kraus, came across with with verve, but not in time to get the movement airborne. Some might argue that Mozart’s melodies and phrasing demand restrained purity in execution, but K. 491 constructs a bridge to the romantic period. The dynamic range felt more robust during the tuttis, so it did not seem as if Andris Nelsons had been holding things back; but overall, the work sounded restrained. Was it the openness of the shed or some other aspect of the acoustics? Compared to some of his exuberant recordings, Lang sounded measured, though clean and graceful. His encore, Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20, in C-sharp Minor B. 49, entranced in ways that the concerto did not, especially in his nuanced phrasing. During the intermission we enjoyed seeing Lang greet young pianists who came backstage to get copies of K. 491 autographed.
Tchaikovsky felt deeply ambivalent about his Symphony Number 5 in E minor, Opus 64, a gigantic work running close to 50 minutes. It is filled with vivid, soaring melodies and elegant, if extravagant orchestration. In many places the work seems balletic, perhaps foreshadowing the Nutcracker and the Pathétique Symphony. The opening Andante—Allegro con anima introduces the main theme, which unites all movements of the symphony. The composer himself conducted the premier in 1888. The funereal mood of the initial movement expanded to the inspiring Andante second movement, the Valse and finally, in joy and triumph of the Finale. Over the long span of the piece, Nelsons permitted the winds and percussion nearly free rein when a bit more reining in would have been welcome. Even so, the wild, ride reverberated in one’s bones.
Nelsons had begun the concert by paying tribute to Leonard Bernstein with Mozart’s Overture to the Magic Flute, which had made it first appearance at Tanglewood in Bernstein’s debut on these grounds 71 years ago. Brief and challenging from the initial adagio, beginning with three Masonically symbolic chords, it soon transitions to allegro and contrapuntal development, marvelously anticipating and foreshadowing not just the entire opera, but also, in this case, we hope, a summer of glorious music.