Elegance and flair – Lang Lang plays Prokofiev in Rome

Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium Parco della Musica – 1 March 2014

Fresh from sharing the stage with Metallica at the recent Grammy Awards in one of the most unlikely pairings of the ceremony, Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang was back in Rome at the weekend with the more familiar accompaniment of the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under the baton of the orchestra’s very own Sir Antonio Pappano. Certainly, the Metallica gig will do little to endear Lang Lang to music critics who abhor his showmanship – it’s hard to think of a contemporary classical musician capable of polarising critical opinion so dramatically – but there’s no denying his drawing power. For this concert at the Santa Cecilia Hall I had chosen seats behind the stage – perfect for watching Lang Lang’s hands, and noticing his constant interaction with the orchestra and conductor – and I watched amazed as the 2,800 seat hall slowly filled to sold-out capacity.

When bestselling Harry Potter author JK Rowling recently published a thriller under a pseudonym the book garnered rave reviews from critics. Reading the exaggeratedly scathing reviews of Lang Lang recordings and concerts I often wonder whether the prodigiously talented pianist should attempt a similar ruse in order to free himself from the preconceived ideas about his playing and force critics to listen without prejudice. I remain an unrepentant admirer of Lang Lang, both as a performer and as an extraordinary global ambassador for classical music. I’ve been enjoying his recent Prokofiev 3 Bartók 2 CD with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and was very much looking forward to hearing him play Prokofiev’s challenging Piano Concerto No. 3 in Rome.

Lang Lang signing CDs after concert!
If he is at all bothered by his press, it certainly didn’t show on Saturday afternoon, when a relaxed and smiling Lang Lang strolled out onto the stage, looking utterly composed, nodding his acknowledgment to the audience (including those of us seated in the rear gallery) who greeted his appearance with loud applause. And what a wonderful concert it turned out to be! Lang Lang is immensely suited to a work of such dramatic contrasts in mood, and he effortlessly shifted gears through the lyricism, wit, and melancholy mystery that the piece demands. His technical accuracy is always breathtaking, and the sheer flair and brilliance of his playing can be utterly thrilling at times, but as he enters a new, more mature phase in his virtuoso career, it quickly became clear that he is now bringing something truly poetic to the mix – this was beautiful, limpid playing.

Lang Lang’s sheer enjoyment of performing is clear, and when he returned to the stage during the thunderous applause after the concerto, we were treated to an exquisite and subtle encore of Manuel Ponce’s Intermezzo – just amazing.

The entire programme on Saturday was hugely rewarding. The afternoon opened with the debut performance by the Santa Cecilia Orchestra of Meyerbeer’s Overture from Dinorah, which included a choral part sung by the Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Unseen by the audience, the choir performed outside the rear stage gallery where I was sitting. Hearing the effect of distant voices behind me was a magical experience. The concert concluded with an exhilarating performance of Symphony No. 3 in C minor by Camille Saint-Saëns, which unusually includes a pipe organ to reinforce the orchestral sound. An immensely enjoyable afternoon!

Full programme:
Dinorah: Ouverture
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 
Symphony No. 3 in C minor