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Lang Lang and the NSO, trying to look beyond Beethoven's sunny phrases

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

The National Symphony Orchestra's program Friday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was, rather than a regular subscription concert, one in a series of one-off events with big-name artists with which the orchestra is leavening its season. It was called "An Evening With Lang Lang," and featured not one but two piano concertos (Beethoven's first and Prokofiev's third).

Lang Lang, the superstar pianist, has established himself as a darling of the public and a punching bag of the critics through a combination of astonishing virtuosity and, at times, interpretive shallowness. It's a mistake to see this as entirely his fault: He appears to be a supremely gifted young man who's actively exploring what it is he wants to say with the music he's worked so hard to learn, alternating his solo appearances with chamber music sessions with the likes of Daniel Barenboim -- hardly the action of an empty-headed crowd-pleaser, however much he sometimes looks like one.

He held something of a middle line on Friday night. He reined in the showiness and the overt playing to the crowd, but he didn't delve particularly deeply into the music, either. The Beethoven is a light and sunny piece (which he's recorded with Christoph Eschenbach, the NSO's designated music director and another of his mentors), but there's more to be made of these lissome phrases; and there were also a couple of startling finger slips from a player whose hallmark is the kind of effortless technical perfection he later showed in the Prokofiev.

One could blame his partner on Friday, Andrew Litton, who didn't give him much phrasing to follow. Litton is an energetic conductor without much finesse. It was educational to compare his performance of Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmilla" overture, which opened the program, with the way Iván Fischer and the same orchestra played the same piece in September. Fischer is all about pointed intensity; there's a sharp focus to his reading, even when the players don't exactly come together. Litton is also energetic, but big and blowzy, so that there was a sense of sloppy though agreeable approximation. This carried through to the other pieces, including the overture to Weber's "Euryanthe"; his phrases had a tendency to sag.

Litton is, however, a Russian specialist, and he shifted up one gear for the Prokofiev, the opening of which was the best thing on the program (though his lack of focus led to some lamentable moments, including one unfortunate entrance from the horns in the second movement). Lang Lang, meanwhile, kept a light touch even when playing ferocious music, enabling him to maintain a through-line in the final movement between the springy pianissimo section, played in an energetic whisper, and the huge and finger-busting finale, which was exhilarating without merely banging on the keys.

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