There may be no work better suited to Lang Lang's talents and inclinations than Frederic Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11, as evidenced by his remarkable performance last night with the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin.
Lang Lang tends to bang in bolder music but sparkles when playing quietly, with an intimate tone. The Chopin concerto divides labor between orchestra and soloist in such a way that the orchestra has almost all the emphatic statements, leaving the pianist to massage tender utterances. Lang Lang loves to stretch and remold melodies in the heat of the moment; Chopin's music demands just that from a pianist. Lang Lang is at his best when his moment-to-moment brilliance can naturally coalesce into a coherent whole; the Chopin concerto, with its jewellike interludes connected by a broad thematic sweep, is designed to make that happen.
So although it was no wonder that Lang Lang delivered such a fine performance, it was still a wonder to hear him do it. He caressed Chopin's melodies lovingly, maintaining a forward pulse yet finding fantasy with his rubato; the slow movement felt like a sustained dream as he filled it with quiet drama. When playing softly, he barely seemed to be touching the keyboard, occasionally dropping his volume just above inaudible, yet somehow he communicated every note to the rafters. (He also played the part of the poet-pianist to the hilt, often tossing his head back in apparent rapture at the music he was making. The effect was somewhat hampered by the velvet jacket he wore as part of his all-black ensemble, which made him look like Wayne Newton attending a funeral.)
Slatkin and the NSO provided sensitive support, making sure their more emphatic music contrasted sharply with Lang Lang's and taking care to give him space during his solos. William Walton's Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Minor, which followed the concerto after intermission, could not have contrasted more sharply with the Chopin concerto. Some will find this work too dour -- the translation of the Italian tempo marking of the second movement is "Fast, with malice" -- yet there are a drive and passion in it that are hard to resist. The influences of Sibelius are obvious, especially in the symphony's harmonies and instrumentation, but the craggy melodies and inexhaustible (sometimes brutal) energy are all Walton's own.
Something in English music seems to bring out the best in Slatkin, and he led a dynamic, incisive performance of the Walton that nevertheless found a humane core to the work. The conductor found some dash and humor in that second movement and made the gentler, more uncertain moments of the slow movement as vivid as those roiling with tragedy. The finale, in which Walton tries to wrest hope from the previous three movements, ultimately felt like a hollow victory with its barren closing harmonies, but Slatkin balanced triumph and defeat so well that the ending felt satisfying. It didn't hurt that he had the NSO horns playing quite well, indeed, as they play a key role throughout the symphony.
The concert opened with Schubert's Overture to "Rosamunde," an old warhorse that took an energetic lap under Slatkin's baton. It provided a fine curtain-raiser and ensured that anyone who arrived late could be seated before the Chopin. If you want to hear the overture, you'll have to arrive on time when the program is repeated tonight and tomorrow at 8.