Lang Lang uninspiring in Rachmaninov, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky Trios

Rachmaninov, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky: Lang Lang (piano); Vadim Repin (violin); Mischa Maisky (cello). Royal Festival Hall, 9.5.2011 (CC)

Rachmaninov Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor (1892)
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49
Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50

An interesting mix of personalities here, playing chamber music in the unchamber music-like Festival Hall, as part of the “Lang Lang Inspires” festival at the South Bank. All three works hold the propensity for extrovert expression, however, and you don’t get more extrovert than Lang Lang. True, the showy, throw the hands off the keyboard gestures were occasionally in evidence, but he was more tempered than in solo recital.

The Rachmaninov, a tremendous piece (try the Moscow Rachmaninov Trio on Hyperion, reviwedby myself back in late 2000), began on a beautiful bed of sound provided by the two string players. Lang Lang’s entrance was problematic, though – his tone seemed mightily thin, especially when in the company of Mischa Maisky’s generous sound. Even though a short work, it came across here as curiously diffuse (listening to the Hyperion disc mentioned above, and reinforcing this with an auditioning of the Kempf Trio on BIS, proved that this is indeed not the case), and tuning was distinctly suspect from Repin at times. The end approached passion, but did not quite deliver the real thing.

It was Maisky that opened the Mendelssohn First Trio with breathtaking eloquence. Mendelssohn’s writing for piano might on paper seem to suit Lang perfectly, but this felt score-bound. Certainly any white-heat of inspiration on the part of the performers seemed absent. The audience (generally young and enthusiastic) applauded at every inter-movemental opportunity, effectively helping the impression that this was four strung together movements rather than one single piece. A great shame, too, that Lang was terribly wooden in his phrasing of the opening of the central Andante con moto tranquillo – a Lied ohne Worte if ever there was one. Repin and Maisky put him in the shade with their tender version of the theme. If the fleet Scherzo was more Lang’s cup of tea, there was still a problem with the shallowness of his octaves. The fast finale found only Maisky able to shine and even to raise a smile – Lang’s stabbed-at accents were simply uncomfortable.

The fifty-minute Tchaikovsky Piano Trio is a masterpiece. Repin, who had not been on top form in the first half, at last raised his game. The generous sound of Maisky’s cello seemed totally at home here; Lang Lang was frequently too literal, however (more literal than in the DG recording, interestingly); he also forced his tone in fortissimi so that it became brash and overly metallic. The main structural problem was a drop in momentum in the first movement – just as Rachmaninov had lost out in the hands of Lang and friends (or Deutsche Grammophon-juxtaposed colleagues, probably more accurately), so did Tchaikovsky. The theme (presented by the piano) held not a trace of the wistful or the melancholic. Accents were forced and unnatural – once more the line was not allowed to breathe. True, Lang shone in the light third variation, but isolated moments are not enough. Even here there was attempted applause when the players left a small gap between variations. If the long legato line of the strings was finely managed, it was too little to rescue the performance.

Colin Clarke