Is the Royal Albert Hall big enough to contain Lang Lang’s gigantic ego?
For the man who circles the virtual globe accompanied by a hundred maidens playing Steinways, and whose ideal event is a Woodstock-scale gathering, the hall’s 5,500 capacity seems paltry. But musically he’s thinking big: a complete Beethoven concerto cycle over three days would daunt even Barenboim, who would space things out to let these works breathe as they should.
The first surprise was the absence of Lang Lang merchandise in the foyer; the second was the absence of smoky lighting and dry ice in the auditorium. And when Lang Lang came on, it was in a middle-aged grey suit, with not a diamond in sight. All of which sent a message: Lang Lang is in serious mode. When he made his first entry in Beethoven’s first concerto, it was with grave demeanour and a nicely projected sound. As Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra both followed his lead and gave him space, he was allowed to present his interpretation of this work in high relief. It had elegance and grace, but the passage-work which contains the spirit of this movement felt feminine, with Beethoven’s hallmark assertiveness kept out of sight. This was an original reading, but only by virtue of its understatement.
When we got to the cadenza – one could have predicted this – the Ego abruptly resurfaced. It was Beethoven’s cadenza, but long and sprawling, weaving every motif from the movement into it, and instead of acting as a commentary, it took off into uncharted realms and resolutely stayed there, soaring and somersaulting, sliding and gliding, rippling and roaring. Each time one thought it had finished, it burst out again, like Dudley Moore in his celebrated sketch of an endless Beethoven ending. Waiting to be allowed back into the game, Salonen and co were politely patient, and the rest of the concerto passed off sweetly.
The fourth concerto, with its visionary slow movement’s dialogue between heaven and hell, is a very different affair, requiring a touch which is both light as a feather and tough as steel. But Lang Lang approached it in exactly the same way: this Beethoven was daintily tamed. Yet the irony is, Lang Lang is musician enough to deliver the right stuff: he just chose not to.