A new Lang Lang emerges at Tanglewood

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LENOX — A reborn Lang Lang entered the world at Tanglewood. Returning to action Friday night after a layoff of more than a year to let an injured left hand heal, the brilliant young showman of the keyboard was the brilliant young showman of the keyboard no more.

Gone were the virtuoso tricks, the arms flying in the air, the grins for the audience, the flamboyance. Quite the opposite. Playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons on opening night, Lang seemed almost sleepy at the keyboard.

Injured hand or subdued by choice? Impossible to tell. From a distance in the Shed, the two hands seemed equal in strength. But it would be nice to think that in his enforced vacation, Lang, now 36, had rethought his ways and decided to focus more deeply on the musical values that were always latent, and sometimes to the fore, in his playing.

The hand injury stemmed from a nemesis of other pianists such as Leon Fleisher — overexertion in practice. Unfortunately, Mozart's K.491 seemed the wrong vehicle for re-entry. (Lang had originally planned the big Tchaikovsky concerto, it has been reported.) K.491 is one of Mozart's darkest, most probing, even tragic works, in the dramatic key of C minor (see Beethoven's Fifth Symphony).

This certified superstar, who commands a large fan following and media attention with his flashiness and good works, consistently underplayed Mozart's drama. He got off some pearly runs but momentum was absent. Tempos were so slow and sound was so faint that the overall effect was tragedy prettified, coming across like icing without a cake. Nelsons and the BSO went along with conception, and Lang's admirers in the large audience cheered him on, earning him a solo encore, Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor, which emerged slow and twisted out of shape. Many in the audience left at intermission, after the encore.

A curtain-raising performance of Mozart's "Magic Flute" Overture opened the program, showing the BSO in fine form for the busy summer ahead.

In the centennial "Celebrating Lenny at Tanglewood" season, the BSO dedicated its opening weekend to two Russian symphonies Bernstein had conducted many times at the festival — Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Shostakovich's Fifth.

In a preconcert interview, Nelsons, who trained in Russia, spoke of a kinship between the two works, not only in form (four movements ending in a march) but also in mood (are those climactic marches triumphant or despairing?). Though the pair of symphonies is separated by half a century and a lot of history, both composers lived in fear — Tchaikovsky of exposure as a homosexual, Shostakovich of the knock at the door from Soviet thugs. Both battle fate.

In a symphony that usually runs about 50 minutes, Nelsons brought the Tchaikovsky Fifth in at a full hour. He took infinite pains with every detail, down the horns' ominous buzzes, to let the drama unfold in full panoply. More than ever, the Fifth sounded distinctively Russian, with myriad variants of hope and despair in the frequent mood swings.

The BSO's playing was superb, full of dramatic color and contrasts. As in Shostakovich on Sunday afternoon, Nelsons showed the final outcome — victory or defeat — to be very much in doubt. In Tchaikovsky's climactic march, strongly, almost violently thudding cellos and basses undercut the triumph being proclaimed in the brasses. At an opposite pole, the moonlit andante cantabile, with its famous theme, was enriched by poignant solos in the winds.

Sunday's program, combining Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Shostakovich Fifth, with veteran Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder as soloist, was a re-creation of Bernstein's BSO debut program in Boston in November 1944. (Jesus Maria Sanroma was the pianist then.)

The Brahms performance was a revelation. It was as if someone opened a trunk marked Brahms concerto and the true concerto leapt out. The conventional approach, in which the music seems carved out of granite and ripe for virtuoso display, was banished. Everything was unhurried and scaled down to intimate proportions.

Buchbinder had power when needed in the big chords, scales and trills, but his clarity of sound and ease of temperament were focused on the smaller picture, which became the larger picture. A prayerful sense of contemplation in the largo gave way to easygoing joy in the usually unbuttoned Hungarian finale.

It was refreshing to hear, unalloyed, the 26-year-old Brahms' mingled feelings of loss over the death of his friend Robert Schumann and his awakening love for Robert's widow, Clara. Nelsons and the BSO absorbed and gave back the soloist's vision, creating an altogether mesmerizing experience.

Buchbinder showed he could also play the razzle-dazzle game with a splashy encore, "Soiree de Vienne," a concert paraphrase by Alfred Grunfeld of the waltz from Strauss' "Fledermaus."

The Shostakovich performance was much like the Tchaikovsky Fifth's two nights before, slowly paced, richly considered in detail and attuned to mood. Beauty of sound in the quieter passages only heightened the brutality of the militaristic climaxes with trumpets blaring and drums pounding.                                                                 

The largo was a barren landscape of crushed dreams. The crunching march at the end left no doubt: there is no triumph here - only devastation and the crushing of the individual.

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