The four powerful descending notes of Tschaikovky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat, first composed in 1875 and later twice revised in 1890 and 1893 have now almost become the "trademark" theme associated with the composer's name in more or less the same way that the two 4 hammer notes of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 are associated with the latter's name. Yet it wasn't always so. It was rejected by Arthur Rubinstein, normally quite receptive to new ideas, as "unplayable" when Tchaikovsky first played it to him. Well, times have changed. The tempo, the keyboard pyrotechnics and the power required from the soloist proved a piece of cake for Lang Lang at the Cultural Centre last night. I had been looking forward to this concert for a long time. Lang Lang delivered a Tchaikovsky full of testosterone but his ocytocin somehow seemed to have made a mysterious exit from the music. The first movement is solemn, powerful, heroic and full of joy. At places, it sounded last night more like a symphony than a concerto. However, I am a bit disappointed at the second movement, which ought to have been played with a great deal more tenderness and delicate feelings to reflect its rather softer and easier pastoral-like mood but turned out to be nothing of the sort. It sounded empty and soul-less, mere notes. All he managed is to display is the element of mischievous child-like hopping about. The final movement was much better, full of brightness, life and energy but Lang Lang played at what appears a break-neck speed towards the end, giving the movement an urgency which seemed to me to be a bit too excessive. Was he in a hurry to go to a Christmas party in America or China or for another scheduled performance? Lang Lang could certainly have done better as shown in the video which follows. But last night, his heart seemed anywhere else but in the music itself. As to where, heaven knows !
The only only other piece of music last night was Tchaikovsky's Syphony No. 4, in F minor, Op 36, a symphony which rarely made it to the concert halls of Hong Kong. This is a symphony written during a period in the life of the composer in which he underwent some rather turbulent emotions, having just been most unhappily married. Some say that it portrays the very intensive struggles he experienced in his life at that time. We hear lots and lots of conflict in the music, especially his strive against fate. It's full of bombast and strain, which suits quite well Van Zweden's energetic conducting style. Sometimes, I imagine that Van Zweden is trying to be another Carlos Kleiber. Whether or not that is so, his first movement is quite dramatic. We hear Tchaikovsky's bitter superhuman struggle against loneliness. The second movement is much more relaxed and is said to portray the memories of his youth and his dreams. The third movement, in the form of a Scherzo, is where his imagination could run freely to whither it fancied. I like in particular the fun-like pizzicato plucking by the strings at the first half of this movement, something which is most delightful. In the final movement, with elements of the sonata and its variations, Tchaikovsky seemed to have found joy in the tradition of the Russian people in combatting the dark struggle of the first movement. Its festive mood is most evident in the huge variety of sound and its fiery tempo. But for this piece I would have left the concert hall a most disgruntled man.