United Kingdom PROM 2: Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Qigang Chen, Mussorgsky/Ravel: Haochen Zhang (piano); Alison Balsom (trumpet); China Philharmonic Orchestra, Long Yu (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 19.7.2014 (CC)
Elgar – Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 in G
Tchaikovsky – Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet
Liszt – Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat
Qigang Chen – Joie éternelle (UK premiere)
Mussorgsky/Ravel –Pictures at an Exhibition
It was a misjudgement, no matter how well intentioned, for the China Philharmonic to begin their London Prom with Elgar. The night before had brought The Kingdom in a powerful performance, if one that held variable soloists. Eschewing Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 (held over for the last night, and no duplication allowed), the Chinese orchestra opted for No. 4, probably the next best known of the set. But the feeling for British patriotism was understandably absent, so long-breathed tunes sounded remarkably literal. Rhythms were nicely sprung initially, but the overall impression was one of lifelessness; another problem was that crescendos had a tendency not to go anywhere.
A young orchestra (founded 2000), the China PO’s chief conductor is Long Yu. This was an ambitious programme in many respects, not least its length (although it was shy of the predicted 10:15pm finish) and its breadth. Having infiltrated deep into Proms tradition with Elgar in Pomp and Circumstance mode, they moved to core Russian Romantic territory with Tchaikovsky’s famous Romeo and Juliet Overture. Initial ensemble problems (despite a fine preparatory upbeat from the conductor) led to an unrelenting first section. Deficiencies were laid bare in this piece, especially the rather thin first violins, and those directionless crescendos resurfaced. The idea of the romantic gesture is clearly a difficult one to grasp for these Oriental forces, which led to a general feeling of being short-changed. In fairness, there was some drama here, but emotionally this was, at best, tepid.
Someone far more attuned to the Romantic idiom was young pianist Haochen Zhang, winner of the Gold Medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition and student of Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute. Indeed, being in his presence seemed to raise the game of the orchestra. This was Liszt playing of the first rank, beautifully burnished at all dynamics, superb double octaves and a touch as light as a feather yet which allowed every note to speak. Zhang took risks, dwelling on phrases, then imparting a positively Mephistophelean touch. The finale was the weakest movement, interpretatively, with unmistakable dips in the tension. But the pros outnumbered the cons and this, it turned out, was the clear highlight of the concert. An encore: “La Campanella” – the third of the Paganini Etudes – was beautifully and expertly despatched.
Qigang Chen was born in Shanghai in 1951 and initially studied in China but won a scholarship to Paris, where he studied with Messiaen. Ligeti is another important influence and I wish he had learnt from that master that less is more. At some 27 minutes, Joie éternelle (2013), here receiving its UK premiere, was around 15 minutes too long for its materials. A BBC co-commission with a list of organisations too long to list, its title comes from a melody from Chinese opera. The composer first encountered the tune in Tang Xianzu’s famous opera The Peony Pavilion. The composer states that the use of a trumpet seemed natural. And it is true that, particularly as played by Alison Balsom, there was a particular rightness about it (the piece was written for her). There was no missing the Impressionist-Chinese demeanour of the writing, nor the Ravelian slant to the dance moments. At no point particularly challenging in terms of language, its challenges were in fact twofold: firstly to the trumpeter’s technique – unsurprisingly, there were no problems here – and secondly to the listener. The moments of beauty did not compensate for the longueurs, unfortunately.
Finally (almost) came Mussorgsky’s Pictures in its Ravel garb. This was the orchestra’s most successful performance of the evening, but there were missed opportunities: the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” lacked its vital chirrupy charm; the “Great Gate of Kiev” was relentlessly driven. The remarkably full hall loved it though, so much so we were gifted two encores: the strings-only “Wonderful Night”, played with that sense of true rightness only Chinese orchestras can bring; and a massive surprise in the form of what started off as a solo violin and cello duet morphing into a fully-fledged statement of God Save the Queen. When the full statement of our National Anthem began a significant part of the audience stood up from force of habit; not quite sure what to do with themselves as the piece continued – this was a substantial encore – they were forced to sit sheepishly down.
Much fun was had on this evening. and much was learned too. This is the sort of treat at which the Proms excels.