CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA'S PERFORMANCE OF 10/9/08
Jacques Ibert: Escales. Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11. Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67. (Lang Lang, p.; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
Ask a folk-rock aficionado what comes to mind when you say "Tom and Jerry" and they'll tell you it was the original performing name used by Simon and Garfunkel. Fans of Louis Jordan are likely to think of a cartoon cat trying to seduce a long-lashed female by singing "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby." For admirers of the Chinese pianist Lang Lang—and their numbers are legion—"Tom and Jerry" is something still greater: the inspiration for the superstar musician's career. The two-year-old Lang Lang first fell in love with the piano watching a Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry short titled "The Cat Concerto," in which Tom is a concert artiste playing Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody.
You can learn a great deal from animated cartoons, and a love for classical music is just a start. The best toons are models of creativity: triumphs of imagination, technique, and—this one's easy to forget—discipline. The works that mark the golden age of animation are affairs of strict limits: "Scale," Hugh Kenner once wrote, "as fixed as the size of a window at Chartres."
When I last saw Lang Lang with the Cleveland Orchestra, in July 2005, there was no doubt of his imagination and technique. In the art of self-discipline he fell woefully short. Based on this Thursday's performance I'd no longer say, as I did in 2005, that "Lang Lang is to music what William Shatner is to acting." But Thursday's version of Chopin's First Piano Concerto left more than a bit to be desired.
There's no doubt that Lang Lang's skills at the keyboard are impressive. When he reaches the second theme of the concerto's opening movement, he plays with a tone that reminds one of a baby's plush toy-so soft that your mind can barely apprehend its existence. But here's the problem: listen to what's happening to the music, and you find that it's become sentimental almost to the point of self-parody. The only things missing are a candelabra on the piano and a notice in the program that, in case of swooning, ushers are equipped with smelling salts. When Lang Lang indulged in a weirdly long pause near the start of the Romanze, I almost expected him to mimic the pianist Vladimir de Pachmann, who was known to interrupt a recital, gaze into the empty air, and then ask the audience in a dramatic voice: "Did you see? Chopin was here." No matter. After the concluding Rondo—which in this rendition might as well have been entitled "101 Reasons to Admire the Pianist"—the audience went wild, the cameras flashed.
So I was doubtless in a minority when I found it a relief to turn to Franz Welser-Möst's streamlined reading of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. As in the program opener, Ibert's Escales, Welser-Möst sounded at times a little stiff. But his very modern degree of attention to some of the details of Beethoven's writing—the first movement tempo indications, for example, and the treatment of the opening motif—showed a sense of self-discipline that was entirely lacking in Lang Lang's Chopin. To the romantic, such conducting may seem as arbitrarily limited as the size of that Chartres window. But I'll take Welser-Möst's stained glass over Lang Lang's kitschy candelabra any day.
Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.