London Symphony Orchestra / Tan Dun / Daniel Harding / Lang Lang - Barbican, 21 April 2009
The most famous symphony in the world right now, Tan Dun's five minute Internet Symphony 'Eroica' was more impressive live in the Barbican than on the inevitably tinny YouTube video. But, frantic yet curiously numbing, it still sounds more like a theme tune for a Saturday night footie programme than a groundbreaking work of art. The LSO, faces like small children confronted with steaming brussels sprouts, despatched it efficiently, though with manifestly less enthusiasm than the conductor/composer himself. The whole YouTube orchestra project of which this is the centrepiece has done a brilliant job of promoting classical music on YouTube. In that respect, it's a massive success. But please can we leave it out of the concert hall now?
The capacity audience seemed to like it. But not half as much as the entrance of the man who for many was the evening's main attraction - Lang Lang - here to give the UK premiere of the piano concerto Tan Dun composed specially for him. It's a more serious work than the Internet Symphony, both in length - thirty minutes - and intent, but again there's much in it that's superficial and derivative.
The piano is very much centre stage throughout, but surprisingly (considering Lang Lang's virtuosity), there's little flashiness in the writing. The key recurring motif is a single note, repeated at rattlesnake speed using alternating fingers. Sounds easy, is hard. Incredibly so when articulated with Lang Lang's clarity and evenness. Stealth flash. But not exactly 'pianistic'. Some attractive moments of Ravelian introspection aside, that's what I felt about a lot of the piano writing in this piece. Tan Dun wasn't so much exploring the instrument's sonorities as wishing it were something else. A drum perhaps, or sometimes a harp. Lang Lang's heart didn't seem to be quite in it, and I couldn't blame him.
Percussion, both tuned and whacked, features as strongly as the piano. It lends a little Chinese flavour but the overall effect is more pot noodle than chow mein. What really killed the work for me though was its rambling, episodic structure (or lack of) - it's a side dish to an invisible movie in the Crouching Tiger mould. Background music.
Daniel Harding - looking in action ever more like a pocket-sized Rob Brydon - was drafted in to restore normality for the second half with Mahler's First Symphony. A fair few of the audience had scooted off in the interval, their musical appetites sated. They missed a great performance. Harding had the measure of the detail, without resorting to empty, over-emphatic gesture. The opening shiver of strings, immaculately controlled, was just the first indication of his detailed preparation. The first movement's offstage brass were perfectly balanced and wind solos assertive but not overbearing.
The odd positioning of the basses - behind and beneath the first violins - seemed to me his only misjudgement (though for all I know he was following Mahler's instruction). Sitting centre stalls, I simply couldn't hear them very well. It was certainly Mahler's idea (at one point) for the usual solo bass introduction to the third movement to be augmented by the whole section - another change that didn't work for me, losing the sinister directness of the solo alternative. The tragic and grotesque edges of this movement weren't quite sharply focussed, but that may be preferable to Gergiev's idiosyncratic extremes.
An explosive finale pushed the volume limits, but never quite teetered out of control. The recollection of the opening string shimmer and horn call lent a neat symmetry. Once again, Harding followed a composer instruction, this time for the horns to stand up - though I'm not sure this added anything but novelty value on this particular occasion. But overall , a measured and satisfying account.
LSO play Symphony No. 1 "Eroica" - for YouTube, conducted by Tan Dun: