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New York
Avery Fisher Hall
05/14/2002 -  
Serge Prokofieff: Piano Concerto # 3
Pyotr Tchaikovsky: Symphony # 6

Lang Lang (piano)
New York Philharmonic
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

The circumstances surrounding the death of Tchaikovsky are as murky as the glass of cholera-infested water that killed him. The incontrovertible facts are these:

1. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of the 6th Symphony and died nine days later
2. The cause of death was cholera
3. He was seen drinking unprotected water in a St. Petersburg restaurant during a virulent outbreak
4. He was classically manic-depressive and appeared at a low point during this time even while completing the happy music for The Nutcracker
5. He was a predatory homosexual and borderline pedophile (depending on one’s definition of the age limit of the partner)
6. He had attended a preparatory school with a judgmental, star chamber style, board of review with a draconian code of honor
7. The facts surrounding his demise were covered up, first by his brother Modest and later by the Soviets

If, in some cosmic courtroom such as the one in The Devil and Daniel Webster or that idiosyncratic British film A Matter of Life and Death, the composer were brought up to defend himself against charges of suicide, perhaps the most forceful prosecution evidence would be the music itself. Discounting the appellation “pathetique”, an invention of the brother and not sanctioned by the composer, the work is filled with allusions to death and the helplessness of a mere human caught in the inexorable dilemma of fatalism (it is not Fate but rather Tchaikovsky’s ardent belief in it which is relevant here). In the first movement, the trombones intone the Russian hymn for the dead, in the second, imaginary couples waltz their totentanz precariously on the head of a bizarre 5/4 pin, in the third, Tchaikovsky seems to be saying goodbye to the rough and tumble world with one last celebratory quickstep (cf. the movement “to my Apollonian brothers” in Mahler’s rumination on his own impending death, the 9th Symphony), and, if the finale isn’t a suicide note, then garcon, water for everyone!

But first, life. Lang Lang is a nineteen year old who plays with an infectious enthusiasm the concerto that Prokofieff wrote for his own concert tours. Mr. Lang is of a similar build as the composer, good-sized frame and enormous hands. The polyrhythmic complexities and devilish cross-handed maneuvering of the outer movements were child’s play for him; in fact a palpable sense of play permeated this entire performance. This fresh-faced dynamo has a charismatic, ingenuous sort of appeal: a baby panda of enormous talent. The audience was instantaneously won over and responded forcefully to Mr. Lang’s athleticism and gymnastic dexterity. Perhaps more lastingly impressive was his sense of gentle phrasing and his insistence on significant dynamic contrasts to put over this marvelously insouciant work. So what do you do for an encore? Lang perceptively chose the Horowitz arrangement of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever, establishing instant warmth and détente. This young colt is a natural showman.

Any sense of meditative profundity was buried in a barrage of applause after the third movement of the Tchaikovsky (this was a very enthusiastic crowd), but overall Eschenbach led a sensitive performance on the decidedly restrained side. The famous first movement theme was distilled from the realm of the shampoo commercial and presented more magisterially; this whole reading was striving for the noble rather than the sentimental. The most satisfying section was the looking glass waltz (with two extra beats every two measures) and I noticed an atmospheric connection to Maestro’s conception of the fantastique ball scene. The Phil was on their best behavior (unlike the listeners), preparing for the valedictory of Masur. Eschenbach held his hand up for an extremely long time at the end, hoping to hold the thanatological mood, but at his very first twitch the bravos began. Perhaps the crowd was still energized from the sheer vitality of Lang Lang.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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