Too much Lang Lang and too little Prokofiev in superstar pianist’s return to CSO

Sun May 22, 2016 at 1:06 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Lang Lang performed Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the CSO Saturday night.

Of all the works given their world premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra over its 125-year history few have proved more significant or become such repertoire cornerstones as Serge Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The Russian composer debuted his Third Concerto in 1921 as soloist with the CSO, Frederick Stock conducting.

The concerto received its sole performance in this retrospective season Saturday night with Lang Lang as soloist and Charles Dutoit conducting. And, as is often the case with the gifted yet indulgent Chinese pianist, moments of dazzling keyboard bravura jostled with showy self-regard in equal measure.

In his first downtown CSO appearance in eight years, Lang Lang seemed almost understated in the early stretches of the opening movement, playing with characteristic fire and steely technical command, his playfully nonchalant bravura in synch with Prokofiev’s quirky style.

In the central movement, the pianist launched the first variation with searching expression and brought an apt sense of nocturnal atmosphere to the fourth iteration of the theme.

Unfortunately, the Barnum and Bailey side of this artist’s split personality soon showed up, with the usual familiar mannerisms. In addition to conducting with his free left hand and gazing out at the audiences as he played, he insisted on pounding out the accompanimental piano part in the movement’s Coda section loudly, as if to ensure the spotlight stays on him and not on the orchestra, as Prokofiev intended.

Worse still was his turning the finale into a land-speed test, completely ignoring the composer’s marking of Allegro non troppo (fast but not too much) and morphing the score’s insistent marcato bite into a prestissimo of musical mush. Like artistic taste, “non troppo” is not in Lang Lang’s vocabulary.

Two months ago on the same stage Daniil Trifonov delivered a Prokofiev Third Concerto with the Montreal Symphony that respected the letter and spirit of the score, and brought extraordinary depth and more excitement than Saturday’s showpiece approach. But then Trifonov is a serious musician.

That’s show biz. Dutoit seemed resigned, apparently deciding this was one battle he was not about to fight. The Swiss conductor allowed his superstar soloist’s breakneck tempos while ensuring order and keeping up as best he could.

Lang Lang’s adoring audience, of course, ate up all the speed, sound and fury, calling him back for repeated curtain calls, the pianist acknowledging the ovations with a lofty reversed palm like the Pope. He provided one encore, a mostly subdued rendering of Ponce’s Intermezzo No. 1, though even here he undermined the limpid melody with an overemphatic left hand.

As was the case Thursday night, it was the iridescent and beautifully played account of Stravinsky’s complete Firebird ballet under Dutoit’s magisterial direction that was the evening’s highlight.

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4 Responses to “Too much Lang Lang and too little Prokofiev in superstar pianist’s return to CSO”

  1. Posted May 22, 2016 at 6:21 pm by Joe glossberg

    You are right on

  2. Posted May 22, 2016 at 7:39 pm by Clay Hamlin

    I would have preferred an entire evening of Lang Lang. That is not meant to disrespect the CSO though. I love piano solos.

  3. Posted May 22, 2016 at 10:34 pm by Paul Cohan

    It’s too bad. Lang Lang has as much — or more –talent than any keyboard artist alive. But it’s hard to take seriously a classical musician who recently launched a line of his and her parfums.

    It was a great evening for Mr. Dutoit. Seventy-nine years old . . .he did everything but dance the lead.

  4. Posted May 22, 2016 at 11:25 pm by Anne-Marie

    I cannot argue with your assessment, having seen and heard Trifonov perform the same Prokofiev last fall. After all these years one would have hoped for a decrease of theatricality from Lang Lang, a maturity of style and delivery that focuses on the composer’s music rather than what comes across as self-absorption. As the French would say, “tant pis.”

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