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Music Review

Lang Lang brings romance to Rachmaninoff at the BSO

Last night’s Boston Symphony Orchestra program sandwiched two historic BSO commissions around a piano concerto from the first decade of the 20th century, but there was nothing old about the performances. Guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led idiosyncratic readings of Paul Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass and Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” It was, however, guest pianist Lang Lang who stole the show with a dizzyingly over-the-top rendition of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

The Hindemith, which Serge Koussevitzky debuted with the BSO in 1931, begins with ominous dotted rhythms that suggest a war machine. Its two movements eventually turn somber, a hymn emerging from the gloomy cello forebodings of the first, a brass threnody from the bustling fugue of the second. Frühbeck de Burgos directed a high-octane performance, with the brass sometimes overwhelming the strings. It seemed a little hectic until the transition from “Lebhaft” to “Langsam,” when the strings got a chance to sigh against first solo trombone and then solo trumpet.

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Right from the outset of the piano concerto, Lang Lang went his own way, playing the dramatic opening chords so deliberately they hardly conjured the composer’s imagined bells. I could have done with more melting tone and less bangy bass, and the arpeggios in the second movement were wooden. And though this was a heroic attempt, it was more self-indulgent than his 2005 recording with the Mariinsky Orchestra. Still, Rachmaninoff should be big, and Lang Lang held the titanic concept together. I liked how he integrated the “Alla marcia” section into the geometry of the first movement, and I didn’t mind hearing his passagework cut through the orchestra. Frühbeck de Burgos, unfortunately, tended to shout back. He was at his best at the end of the slow movement.

The “Concerto for Orchestra,” another Koussevitzky commission, was composed in 1943; you can hear World War II in the strings’ agonized outcry during the “Elegia” third movement, not to mention the parody of the march from Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony in the fourth. It can easily come off as severe and dry and monochromatic. Frühbeck de Burgos was instead light-textured and light-footed and atmospheric, even swinging and sultry at times. The enigmatic brass chorale that bisects the second-movement “Game of Couples” had the right weight; the big viola tune in the fourth movement was lush and indolent, the Shostakovich parody that followed outrageous but good-humored. This “Concerto for Orchestra’’ was a game of contrasts, ultimately gracious, almost sunny, as if music could put anything into perspective.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.
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