Saturday 22 March 2008

Daniel Barenboim, Lang Lang, et al., 22 March 2008

Philharmonie, Berlin

Ravel – Ma mère l’oye
Liszt – Réminiscences de Don Juan
Bartók – Sonata for two pianos and percussion

Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Lang Lang (piano)
Torsten Schönfeld (percussion)
Dominic Oelze (percussion)

The piano four-hand version of Ravel’s Ma mere l’oye is the original, but I admit to wondering during this performance whether, at least for an audience, it has been superseded by its subsequent version for orchestra. It is another matter for performers themselves, for which the work is a joy to explore. In any case, it received a good, if not outstanding performance from Daniel Barenboim and Lang Lang. It was not always clear that the performers were equally matched, with the latter often sounding somewhat heavy-handed. The waltz of Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête lilted nicely, however, and Le jardin féerique possessed a grave, understated beauty.

I had not heard Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan in the two-piano version before. Indeed, ardent Lisztian though I be, I admit that I was unaware of its existence. Lang Lang is clearly on surer territory in such repertoire than he had been during the Brahms First Piano Concerto two nights before. This is not to say that his performance was flawless: there was the odd slip and, more seriously, a little more playing to the gallery than might have been warranted. He would do well to remember that Liszt adopted super-virtuosity in order to beat mere piano virtuosity at their own game and thereby to restore musical virtues. Barenboim proved no mean virtuoso himself, although there were admittedly moments when a certain technical fallibility showed. On the whole, though, this was an enjoyable performance, if not the extraordinary one some elements of the audience seemed to believe they had heard.

The towering masterpiece on the programme was Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. It probably received the best performance, not least since the two pianists were joined by two outstanding percussionists from the Staatskapelle Berlin, Torsten Schönfeld and Dominic Oelze. I could not fault their performance, whether in rhythmic precision, in finely judged dynamic contrasts, and perhaps above all in their fine contributions on tuned percussion. Barenboim was clearly if unobtrusively leading the performance, which undoubtedly benefited from his guiding hand. On the other hand, Lang, despite the undoubted quality of his performance in pianistic terms, seemed very much intent on playing his own part and did not appear to be listening so closely to his fellow performers. Certainly Schönfeld and Oelze were the superior chamber musicians.

As an encore, Barenboim and Lang offered the Andante from Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos, KV 448. This made me wish that they had performed the work in its entirety, in place of one of the first-half works. Once again, Barenboim took the musical lead, hardly surprising for one of the supreme Mozartians of our time. This performance was poised, stylish, and sometimes meltingly beautiful. It is something of an irony that Lang Lang, so touted as a Romantic lion of the keyboard, should have shone most here, not least through relative self-effacement; it also imparts hope, given that there can be no sterner musical test than the music of Mozart.