Two days after his stimulating solo recital, Lang Lang returned to the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House; this time as the soloist in Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The first half of the concert started with another Grieg composition, the Peer Gynt Suite no. 1. Although Henrik Ibsen’s drama by the same title is rarely played today, the incidental music that Grieg composed for it, and the two Suites in particular, became some of the most loved orchestral works of all times.

The SSO invited the young Venezuelan conductor, Manuel López-Gómez to be in charge of this concert. He shaped Grieg’s popular melodies with elegant ease; the opening Morning Mood movement sounded both serene and mellow, and the last movement’s extended acceleration marched ahead irrevocably. However, I did not notice any apparent effort from the conductor to rise above the well-tried conventions of this work and thus Anitra’s dance became agreeably pleasant rather than having a genuine dancing energy, and the Death of Åse, played by the strings section of the orchestra only, sounded more subdued than mournful. López-Gómez reacted to the slow tempo and overall gentleness of this movement with a certain softness of his beat, which seemed to deprive it of some of the necessary precision. I hasten to add that this was hardly noticeable; nonetheless, it created an occasional delay between his beat and the string players’ change of bows, which in turn resulted in a few minor ensemble problems.

Remarkably, López-Gómez conducted without a score both Grieg’s and the next work, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini (composed only a few years after Peer Gynt). The conductor’s thorough understanding of all details of the music was impressive, as was his choice of tempi appropriate and his movements elegant, while he commanded the orchestra through the many syncopated rhythms of the introduction. I wished though for more evidence of an individual concept in his music making. While his hands did an excellent job in keeping time and the flow of the music, apart from the occasional shaking of the left fist, he seldom indicated changes of emotions, spontaneous musical ideas or passion – a sentiment that abounds in Tchaikovsky’s music. It may not have been entirely the orchestra’s fault therefore, that some of the heart-warming moments of this music felt less than uplifting; for example, the otherwise beautifully played clarinet solo at the Andante cantabile section or only a few minutes later, the usually exalted grand cello melody, here short on energy and purpose.

Emotions, wild passion and soaring melodies were all there though after the interval, as soon as Lang Lang launched into the first solo cadenza of Grieg’s concerto. This is repertoire that suits his extroverted, buoyant performing style eminently well. Not only had he absolute command over every note and every phrase, but he also visibly enjoyed the myriad opportunities offered by the Romantic excesses of the work.

One of the most attractive characteristics of his artistry is that it is never predictable. When a motif is repeated by the composer (which happens often), invariably he finds a way to look at it from a different angle; fierce melodies might become resigned on repetition, innocently happy themes may be altered by doubt or fear. This makes his playing constantly exciting and the audience cannot afford to slacken their attention, for if they do, they might miss out on an exquisite transformation or a never-before-heard pianissimo. The orchestra and its conductor accompanied him well for the most part, but Lang Lang’s somewhat improvisatory approach took them by surprise a few times when the collective orchestral sound did not react quite as promptly to an unexpected change of phrasing or dynamics as, no doubt, they wished they had.

Lang Lang’s performances of whatever repertoire he presents seem to be governed by his own rules. For sure, they are rules and he does respect them; nevertheless, they are not restricted by technical difficulties (and this has an impact on tempi, volume, phrasing etc) while, at the same time, he does not allow his deeply musical style to be impoverished by the boundaries of convention. This lends a never-ceasing exhilaration to anything that he performs; on occasion it can also burden the inherent qualities of the composition that he plays. That was not the case though on Friday night, and his flamboyant, boyish enthusiasm proved irresistible.