Beyond the Wall: Tan Dun's Internet Symphony, The Fire; Mahler No. 1

LSO, Lang Lang/Tan Dun, Harding

Barbican, 23 April 2009 3.5 stars

Tan DunAfter much fanfare, Tan Dun's Internet Symphony: Eroica was finally given its world premiere at Carnegie Hall last week, where the motley gang of musicians who had made it through the YouTube auditions came together and gave a reasonably well-received concert of it, and other works.

Here in London we were not so fortunate as to witness such an historic occasion. We had to make do with hearing the work (as part of the ongoing Beyond the Wall series), but not the orchestra, though I'd wager that the advantages of having the London Symphony Orchestra as performers on this occasion more than co'mpensated for any distress the very large and attentive capacity audience might have been feeling as a result.

The work itself is little more than a trifle; at about five minutes in length, its four miniature episodes combine to serve as something much more like an overture (of the sort one finds in Golden Age musicals) to a symphony, than a symphony in and of itself. However the composer (and on this occasion the conductor) never pursues anything more profound than that; he self-consciously seeks in this piece to choreograph a collision of old and new-witness the allusions to Gershwin, Carmen and Swan Lake, and the weaving in of the Eroica theme in the third movement- such that the epochal nature of the events surrounding the work could be commemorated and qualified somehow within the music. But if the saucy brass, buoyant percussion, and effervescent string themes were dispatched with such energy and focus as they were here, any impressions of superficiality the audience might have would surely be swept away in a tide of bright, gleaming optimism such as the one the Barbican bore witness to the other night.

Much less impressive was Tan Dun's The Fire piano concerto, with soloist Lang Lang and the composer again conducting. Written for the pianist and premiered last year in New York, the work is an unsatisfying tour through cheap dialectical processes, with a self-important and overlong finale undoing much of the subtlety contained within the plaintive major-seventh enriched second movement, and ruining the promising build and transition between the final two movements. The concerto contains some of the fiery theatrics found in the composer's more convincing music, such as in the wildly fun Pipa Concerto, with the third movement in particular featuring some show stopping tutti passages. Indeed there is plenty of detail in the orchestration which momentarily holds the attention, such as the unhinged percussive patter which underscored Lang Lang's laboured playing of the main theme in the first movement, or the menacing, quietly threatening string chords in the same section.

Lang LangYet these points of interest were not enough to dispel, frankly, the boredom that crept in throughout. Matters were not helped by the soloist's over-emphasis of every little gesture; his florid hand movements called to mind the similar affectations of American rock drummers, whilst the lack of synchronicity he displayed with both the technical and emotional drifts of those around him was especially harmful. The two cadenzas in the finale were surely impressive on a technical level-Lang Lang's tremolandi and runs in the first were particularly thrilling-but the piano playing generally made an already flawed work appear even more so.

But you canít keep a good band down for long, as they almost say. Sure enough, the second half soared above the first, with Daniel Harding coming on to deliver a gleaming, properly rousing account of Mahler's first symphony. Harding and his players-who after their recent Mahler cycle were clearly revelling in the material-were attuned to every nook and cranny of this precocious score. The prone and dusky opening gave way to a shining first theme on cello and bass, before a thrilling and dramatic development provoked a mighty and triumphant return to the main thematic material. Every jaunty procession of the Lšndler rang true through Harding's nimble lead, whilst the FrŤre Jacques funeral march has surely rarely sounded as passionate and painful as it did here. If the finale is a touch overlong, the conductor can't be blamed for that; here as elsewhere Harding drew out every exhilarating detail from Mahler's masterful scoring, and he held back the momentum until just the right moment, whereupon the hall was shattered with the sound of a peerless orchestra cutting loose to the magnificent strains of Mahlerian triumph and jubilation.

By Stephen Graham

Photo Credits: Lang Lang by Marcus Dawes


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