It was really a pleasant surprise to see a full David Geffen Hall for a midweek New York Philharmonic subscription concert that featured two modern Hungarian masterpieces. However, it didn’t take long to realize that many of the spectators hadn't come to listen to Bartók and Ligeti, but to get a glimpse of their piano idol, Lang Lang. A good number of people left the hall right after he finished playing the solo part of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee

The evening’s program started with Mysteries of the Macabre, a dazzling piece originally juxtaposing three arias for coloratura soprano from Ligeti’s outrageous and over-the-top Le Grand Macabre, one of the most underrated musical works of the late 20th century. The opera was given a staged performance by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic at the end of the 2009-2010 season and that particular event has since been considered one of the high points of the conductor’s tenure as the orchestra’s music director. On this occasion, the role of Gepopo, with its nonsensical text stripped away, was taken, in an alternate version of the score, by the recently appointed Philharmonic’s principal trumpet, Christopher Martin. Musically versatile and physically nimble, Martin demonstrated – by far not a meager accomplishment – that he belongs to the same class of interpreters as the phenomenal Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, the “owner” of this role.

After the intermission, Gilbert and his NYPO offered an outstandingly limpid interpretation of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The maestro made sure that the syncopated rhythmic structures of Hungarian folk music were recognizable as transformed and integrated in the “mathematical” structures that the composer put together. Every strand of Bartók’s contrapuntal argument emerged with outmost clarity. The mystery and anxiety that are very much part of this score were never brushed aside.

For a long time, commentators have suggested that the extraordinary dialogue between piano and orchestra in the second, Andante con motto, part of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major depicts Orpheus playing his lyre to tame wild beasts. Others have seen Orpheus’ failure to redeem Eurydice as stemming from his over-confidence. I found Lang Lang’s interpretation of this most sensuous of Beethoven’s piano concertos to be equally full of vanity. His relationship with the instrument was one of a conqueror having little doubts about his “charming” powers. There was no authentic humility in his approach to music-making, only pretense. Stage mannerisms were abundant. His ostentatiously lifted left hand, his “look at me” glances to the public, his exaggerated shifts in tempos only distract from recognizing his superb pianissimi, his peerless technique as displayed in the two cadenzas. Like other conductors collaborating with Lang Lang before him, Gilbert seemed to have resigned himself to be a spectator to a performance that was too much about the interpreter and too little about the score.

***11