Hope Springs Eternal with Lang Lang—Imperfect Pleasures with Mahler

United StatesUnited States Rachmaninoff and Mahler/Cooke: Lang Lang (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 14.5.2016 (BJ)

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op 1
Mahler: Symphony No. 10 in F-sharp major (performing version by Deryck Cooke)

Besides bringing the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2015-2016 home season to a close, this program served as a dress rehearsal for the Asian tour to commence immediately after.

Given Lang Lang’s well-established ability to attract large and adoring audiences and his sadly no less familiar penchant for mannered and indeed vulgar pianism, it did not require great reserves of cynicism to presume that his inclusion on the tour might well have been motivated more by commercial than by artistic considerations. His playing on this occasion, however, was in some degree refreshing and reassuring, and, especially if one could disregard his arsenal of self-indulgent and cartoon-like gesture, it offered considerable pleasure, enhanced by the sparkling support that music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew from the orchestra. Whether this often brilliant performance will turn out to have been a first step toward regaining the dazzling level of artistry that Lang Lang displayed when he burst on the local and international scene 15 years ago, we shall just have to wait and hear—hope springs eternal.

The concerto itself hardly rivals the melodic invention and expressive warmth that Rachmaninoff achieved in his next two piano concertos, and for that matter in the greater part of his oeuvre, so that the Mahler Tenth Symphony had to provide the evening’s major artistic rewards. In that regard, I confess myself somewhat puzzled.

In several decades of acquaintance with Deryck Cooke’s modest yet masterly “performing version” of the composer’s unfinished score—at the initial hearings of his first attempt in London beginning in 1964, and subsequently in performances and recordings of his revised score by Eugene Ormandy, Jean Martinon, Wyn Morris, and others—I have found the work to be a profoundly original and intensely expressive culmination of Mahler’s symphonic achievement. Yet neither the originality nor the expressivity now seemed to be so powerfully in evidence, despite a performance in which all concerned (and I must single out principal flute Jeffrey Khaner for particular praise) covered themselves with glory.

At least with respect to originality, it was perhaps the textural richness of the orchestral sound that tended to obscure the strikingly linear style of writing that Mahler was exploring in the work. The distinction between “theme as theme” and “theme as line,” tenuous and hard to define as it is, has always imposed itself vividly on my ears in the new linearity of this work, but this time the language of the piece seemed scarcely to have moved on from the idiom of the Ninth Symphony. And though the harmonic procedures of the slow music were indeed absorbingly eloquent, expression was in somewhat short supply in the fast sections, which sounded like somewhat repetitive re-toolings of similar passages from the Second Symphony to the Ninth, but without the inner impetus—the sheer devil—that makes the relentlessly driven marches in those works so throat-catchingly effective.

Still and all, I really should not exaggerate the negative aspects of what was an accomplished and often thrilling account of an intermittently fascinating symphony. It must be remembered, moreover, that with all his skill and taste as a musicologist and editor, Cooke was in no sense a great composer. His solutions to the myriad problems posed by what Mahler had not yet written when he died may strike us in many instances as the best possible—yet Mahler himself would certainly have had inspirations that could have resulted in a tauter and more cogent overall structure and a stronger musical character. What we have in this version of his last symphony is not perfect, but it is well worth having.

Bernard Jacobson

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