Lang Lang and the Clevelanders make Saint-Saëns and Berlioz (and the occasional Muppet) blaze with life

United StatesUnited States Saint Saëns, Berlioz, ‘Lang Lang Plays Saint-Saëns’: Lang Lang (piano), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 2.5.2024. (MSJ)

Lang Lang and Franz Welser-Möst after Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No.2 © Roger Mastroianni/Cleveland Orchestra

Saint-Saëns – Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.22
BerliozSymphonie Fantastique, Op.14

What does music mean? What does anything mean? What is meaning in a turbulent world?

I approached Severance Music Center on Thursday evening through a knot of protestors and counter-protestors on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, which is adjacent to the home of the Cleveland Orchestra. The protests were about the terrible situation unfolding in the Middle East, and the reminder of real-world tragedies was devastating on more levels than I can grasp. Walking past it to do my job made me ponder those fierce questions with a sense of helplessness.

Indeed, what does Camille Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto mean? I think a strong case could be made that it doesn’t mean anything at all, that this composer was averse to music taking on any sort of portentous personal or philosophical meaning. He was more a musical chemist, one who enjoyed combining elements to see what would happen. In so doing, he became a master craftsman, and both his writing and the few surviving recordings suggest that Saint-Saëns was a brilliant pianist with a deft, witty touch. If you asked him the meaning of life, I suspect Saint-Saëns would have shrugged his shoulders and said he did not have the slightest clue.

That leaves his pieces open to different approaches. Anyone looking for the traditional, dry-French-Champagne approach might have been scandalized by the performance by Chinese superstar Lang Lang, because it was a different world from the tastefully understated traditional approach. But what it was, was full of life. I have encountered many super-hyped young musicians in my years reviewing concerts and recordings, and if any of them has ever come close to living up to the hype in person, it is Lang Lang. Is he exaggerated? Yes. Is he flamboyant? Yep. Sometimes of questionable taste? Absolutely. And thank whatever gods may be that he has the sheer nerve to be so. We need the challenge.

Classical music has struggled in recent decades, all too often moribund and stuck in the slog of tradition. A lot of that is thanks to taste gatekeepers: critics, scholars and teachers who take great offense when something is not performed in the manner they like. To pacify these sharks, performers tend to streamline what they do in order to avoid ruffling feathers. I have tried as a critic to not be that sort of gatekeeper, trying instead to comprehend a wide range of artists’ insights. With that approach in mind, I am not going to be one of those who complains about Lang Lang. I welcome his larger-than-life stage presence, flowery gestures and high-octane fireworks. Look at the world out there. We need every jolt we can get to pierce our jaded senses.

Lang Lang’s Saint-Saëns was bursting at the seams with life. The rambling Lisztian rhapsody of the first movement is a succession of moments that most pianists struggle to hold together, attempting to find a non-existent through-line. Lang Lang jettisoned that approach entirely and instead waded with delight into the eddies and whirls of the passing details, savoring that string of striking moments and – for once – making the movement feel like more than the sum of its parts. Music director Franz Welser-Möst, a conductor who tends to prefer very even pacing, is to be commended for patiently and generously adjusting his beat to allow for the pianist’s stretching of phrases fast and slow.

The two following movements were blisteringly fast, with Lang Lang pointing and shaping phrases with glee. I am not a fan of slowing down for the second theme of the Allegro scherzando middle movement, which is not even hinted at in the score. But if you are going to do it, you might as well throw yourself into it with swagger, which he did. The finale was a fast and furious romp, emphasized by the pianist stomping his foot beneath the piano as he and the orchestra tore into the closing pages like demons. Was it the only way to perform this work? No, but only a bitter fool would deny that it was extraordinarily vital, the kind of life affirmation that keeps one going in the face of the world’s despair.

Lang Lang’s disarmingly sweet encore was his piano arrangement of the song ‘Rainbow Connection’ by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, first heard in The Muppet Movie in 1979, and recently included on Lang Lang’s album of Disney-related favorites. The standouts of past popular music are already becoming part of classical music and rightly so. Bring it on.

Seven years ago, I heard Welser-Möst lead the Cleveland Orchestra in Hector Berlioz’s wild Symphonie Fantastique at the Blossom Music Festival. It was good, but the present performance was at a whole new level. The expected Welser-Möst traits were there: fleet tempi and a widely graduated scale of dynamics. But what was striking was how fresh the performance felt. He did not hold back the orchestra’s urge to ‘go for the jugular’ when that was the right mood, as in the peak of the March to the Scaffold or the Witches’ Sabbat finale. Welser-Möst’s conception avoided falling into the clichés of lush vibrato every time the tempo broadened. Indeed, it felt influenced by historical performance practice in several spots where the amount of vibrato used by players was reduced. This made the end of the first movement truly sound like an orchestral imitation of a church organ, matching the ‘religiosamente’ marking in the score.

The waltz was deliriously fleet-of-foot, with the following slow movement kept mercifully flowing instead of bogging down into fitful, disconnected moments as it did in Michael Tilson Thomas’s performance here a few years back. Robert Walters on the English horn and Frank Rosenwein on the offstage oboe were deliciously colorful. The March was marked with punchy phrasing that peaked at the end of the central brass strut. Kudos to the conductor for artfully combining a suggestion of authentic French sec playing (leaving space between the notes instead of blurring everything together) while still finding a new expressive way to shape the phrase.

The finale blazed. The collective ensemble shocked with a level of ferocity not often allowed by the reserved Welser-Möst, and it rightly brought the audience to their feet as much as Lang Lang’s star turn had. It was a performance to remind every person present that music can be an injection of mighty life force, the thing we desperately need to fix our broken world.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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