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Ives, Chopin and R. Strauss   
Prom 61: Royal Albert Hall, 30 August 2006


Ives Symphony No. 2

Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor

Encore: Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (trans. Horowitz), S244

R. Strauss Till Eulenspiegel

Encores: Walton Touch Her Sweet Lips and Part from Henry V suite

Elgar The Wild Bears from The Wand of Youth suite

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / Leonard Slatkin with Lang Lang piano



Sir Andrew Davis was to have conducted this concert, but illness and surgery prevented him from doing so. Leonard Slatkin took over the advertised programme at short notice.


The work might be one of the first composed whose material is constructed from a variety of other sources – American college songs, marching cornet bands, Brahms' first symphony and the feel of the Romantic in general – and it remains one of the most successful scores of its kind. At times the Romantic feeling is so strong one might almost think of Ives as a neo-Bruckner, but then ‘Columbia' or some other campus tune kicks in to remind you that Ives was ever his own man: quirky, playful and an inveterate fiddler with his musical sources.


It was interesting to observe Slatkin's approach to Ives' playful second symphony, a work he clearly feels some affinity for. Alternating between conducting the five movements batonless and with a baton he brought forth playing that was rich of tone and unfailingly genial characterful. Elements of dry wit, exuberance, reflection, nostalgia and fine cantabile playing were all present at times. Slatkin did not try to reconcile them all within the work, that is not required in Ives' music and nor does it matter if a listener does not pick up on all the sources Ives employs. It is more important that the range of elements act as ‘bearers of feeling' (to quote from Calum MacDonald's excellent programme note) and that the conductor allows the various strands of emotion to register openly in performance. Achieving this was truly a collaborative effort between Slatkin and the fine Pittsburgh players. They revelled in the fun of it all – not to do so would be self-defeating where Ives' music is concerned.


Lang Lang is a pianist with talent to spare, of that there is little doubt. His performance of Chopin's first piano concerto brought out the tension between relaxation and action that there often is in the work. For the most part his performance was content to explore the limpid lyricism of Chopin's writing in the most sensitive of terms, underscored by equally restrained contributions from the orchestra. Such was the extent of Lang Lang's individual approach to the piano line – being unafraid to play with the utmost delicacy of touch – that a high degree of co-ordination with Slatkin was required to keep the work on track, but it was. Occasionally, odd left-hand emphases fractionally upset the careful balance that had been so effortlessly established. The second movement brought an even more finely drawn account from all concerned, showing that even in the most Romantic of concertos an absence of heavy tones and textures can prove mightily effective. In controlling the ebb and flow of the movement's tempo as much as he did, Lang Lang at times seemed in danger of bringing proceedings to a halt as he slowed up and pared back his contribution to the bare minimum. The closing third movement allowed the orchestra to establish some authority with their punchy rhythmic interplay and Lang found much to make of the inflections within the solo part's passagework too. Restraint was again a watchword in some sections, but this was effectively balanced by the large-scale culmination the work was given.


Lang Lang's solo encore – Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, in the transcription by Vladimir Horowitz – afforded full opportunity for a very open and unabashed display of virtuosity for its own sake. That said, part of the enjoyment of Lang's performance was in the seeing of it also. He relishes the challenge that this party piece presents and meets it head-on too. It is included as the only item on the ‘bonus' second disc to his latest release, ‘Memory' on DG 477 597-6, which also features a Mozart sonata, Schumann and Chopin sonata no. 3.


Only on the second horn entry did the Pittsburghers' traversal of Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel really get going, but after that their reading was full of purposeful jesting. With bold lines often drawn in the plush orchestral sound by Slatkin a well rounded image of the work's central character was captured in his mock pomposity and dandified pranks. This was a reading in which Till's comeuppance was made to seem not a little inevitable with his execution most vividly conveyed. (Indeed, one audience member prematurely showed their approval of Till's fate by clapping!) That did little to suppress Till's sardonic jibes however. The Pittsburgh orchestra enjoyed themselves there's no doubt and showed their thanks to Slatkin with enthusiastic applause for his efforts, as indeed they did after the Ives symphony too.


After reassuring the audience that Sir Andrew Davis was doing well and looking forward to be back at work soon, Slatkin led a tender account of Walton's Touch Her Sweet Lips and Part from Henry V suite as the first encore. An altogether more rumbustuous affair in Elgar's The Wild Bears from The Wand of Youth suite was to still to follow, bringing a rousing close to a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting evening.


Evan Dickerson