An all-Grieg programme, this bizarrely uneven concert marked the start of Lang Lang’s short series with the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Next week, the flamboyant Chinese pianist plays works by Mozart and Prokofiev, the latter a composer whose angular modernism suits Lang Lang’s percussive style and can also rein in his tendency towards histrionics. His performance of the Grieg Concerto, however, was an erratic effort, thunderously delivered in places as if it were by Liszt or Rachmaninov, and dramatised to the limit.
You can’t fault his often formidable dexterity, but this was a wayward interpretation that proceeded by fits and starts. The best of it was perversely exciting, but lurching tempo changes threatened to pull the first movement out of shape, and dynamics were extreme to the point of exaggeration in the adagio. There were plenty of characteristic grand gestures and ecstatic glances towards the audience in moments of rapt contemplation. Playing a passage for the right hand alone, at one point, he placed his left hand over his heart and gazed heavenwards. Salonen just about kept things under control and the Philharmonia sounded good throughout.
Grieg’s Peer Gynt came after the interval in the form of a handsomely acted semi-staging by Juha Hemánus of extracts from Henrik Ibsen’s play, using roughly three-fifths of the familiar incidental music. This was not without its problems: the score needs a slightly bigger chorus than the Philharmonia Voices, however well they sang it, and the actors – most notably Sam Bond’s attractive Peer and Beth Tuckey’s tough, affectionate Åse – were at times over-amplified. But the score was ravishingly played, Anush Hovhannisyan made a superbly impudent Anitra, and Marita Sølberg was the most exquisite Solveig imaginable – extraordinarily affecting in the closing scene, when she sings Peer to his final rest. Beautiful.