United Kingdom BBC PROM 57 – Qigang Chen, Mozart, Rachmaninov: Eric Lu (piano); Shanghai Symphony Orchestra / Long Yu (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 1.9.2019. (CC)
Quigang Chen – Wu Xing (The five elements) (1998/9, first Proms performance)
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488 (1786)
Rachmaninov – Symphonic Dances, Op.45 (1940)
This was the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s first visit to the Proms; pianist Eric Lu, winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition last year, is also a Proms Debut Artist.
The Shanghai orchestra has a long history. Founded in 1879 (as the Shanghai Public Band), it has toured extensively, including a joint tour with the New York Philharmonic to promote the Shanghai Expo. It was also the first Chinese symphony orchestra to perform at the Berlin Philharmonie and has appeared on various film soundtracks, including the famous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Chinese composer Quigang Chen (b.1951) studied in Paris in the 1980s. His trumpet concerto Joie éternelle was played at the Proms in 2014 by Alison Balsam with the China Philharmonic under the present conductor and his Iris dévoilée appeared in the 2015 season with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Xian Zhang. The piece here, Wu Xing (The five elements) is a five-movement suite with each panel approximately two minutes in duration: Water; Wood; Fire; Earth; Metal. The order the elements are presented in is very deliberate, moving from what Qigang Chen sees as the strongest (water) through to earth (a base substance) and metal (representing strength and light) via the transformative fire. The influence of French music can be heard in the first movement, ‘Water’, with its luscious harp contributions, while the gestures that open ‘Fire’ seem to quote from Britten’s Peter Grimes (the ‘Sunday Morning’ orchestral imitation of bells, strikingly apposite in this 11am performance). Elsewhere, there are unmistakable references to Chinese traditional music, and unsurprisingly there is lots of brass in the ‘Metal’ movement. The piece is well-crafted, laudably saying what it wants to say and moving on – its strength lies in its very concision, but nevertheless contains moments of much beauty. Fabulous.
Pianist Eric Lu, a fresh-aged 21, one of the BBC New Generation Artists actually starting from the very day of this performance, is a supremely musical interpreter of Mozart, his sound clear and limpid. Lu seemed to take some time to adjust to the Royal Albert Hall acoustic, though, notably quiet for much of the first movement (the BBC microphones on the broadcast eliminate this problem). The first movement was taken at a proper Allegro (conducted in four by Yu, for some reason), the cadenza – Mozart’s – was fabulous. Perhaps a touch more depth of sound from the orchestral strings would have sealed the deal. The interior, F sharp minor Adagio appeared with a properly slow gait, the piano left-hand/bassoon staccato exchanges beautifully managed. Chan Tingyuen the bassoonist in question, was worthy of note also for his valiant and excellent rapid contributions to the final movement. Lu opted to leave those long notes Mozart gives the piano undecorated (some players add flourishes; leaving it alone gives the moment an almost modernist sparseness). The last movement was full of life. Surprisingly, there was no encore: there was certainly the opportunity.
Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances have had some notable outings at the Proms, including by the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2014 and by the São Paolo Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop in 2016. This was a fine performance, defined by its orchestral discipline rather than any wild element. There were terrific saxophone solos though, from Liu Zhongping. The crowning glory of the performance, though, was the danse macabre of the second movement (although perhaps the brass was a touch too restrained); the finale, rhythmically sprung and vibrant, was a true tour de force. The very end fuelled speculation – what happened to the final tam-tam stroke, which most performances seem to leave just to resonate on? Actually, it is marked in the score dotted crotchet (no fermata) whereas the rest of the orchestra has a quaver – and that would explain the downbeat on the next bar from Long Yu. The conductor did what is written, that final downbeat, one assumes, the most efficient way to indicate the cessation of sound. Fascinating, and very effective.
The encore could hardly be more different: a ‘gift’ from the orchestra to the UK of a Chinese traditional eighteenth-century melody (Jasmine Flower) which morphed into a raucous, energy-filled take on the Beatles’s Hey Jude, with the conductor indicating we should all join in. There were some fabulous solos from the sax player, Liu Zhongping (and why not use him as he had been there for the Rachmaninov?) and trumpeter Xia Fei. Great fun and rewarded with a nearly unanimous standing ovation.