To fill the Royal Albert Hall for a complete cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos would be a tall order, even during the Proms.
Lang Lang has so far managed it with ease. For the first night of his three-concert cycle the place was packed to the rafters, and it was a fascinatingly mixed crowd. Chinese youth in chic gear mingled with elderly English couples.
To launch the cycle Lang Lang chose one of the most extrovert of the five concertos, no. 1, and the most quietly spoken, no 4. Both belong to the era before the barn-storming heroics of Franz Liszt, which come so naturally to Lang Lang, had yet appeared in music.
Would be rein in his tonal palette and flamboyant rhetoric accordingly? Or would he reckon that, given the size of the hall and the audience, barn-storming rhetoric was exactly what was required?
It was a fascinating question, to which Lang Lang gave an interestingly mixed answer. After the assertive orchestral introduction – played by the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen with the same lithe clarity they displayed last week at the Festival Hall – Lang Lang’s first entry seemed surprisingly modest. It could afford to be, as he has a gift for augmenting the effect of whatever he’s playing with expressive body language, leaning forward to catch his own quiet notes, or gesturing with a raised forefinger towards an approaching high point.
It makes him ideal for a big space like the Albert Hall.
But as so often happens with Lang Lang, initial good impressions gave way to a sense of unease. He couldn’t resist overemphasising striking details, like the off-beat accents in the first movement, which he hit with such force they bounced off the Albert Hall walls like sonic booms.
And yet, just when I was ready to give up on him, he would do something wonderful. The Fourth Concerto has a tragic slow movement, in which where the lost and lonely piano appears to be assailed by angry spirits, personified by the strings.
I was expecting something mannered and over-coloured, but Lang Lang brought a lovely, understated eloquence to the dialogue. So why did he have to spoil things by chopping the theme of the Finale up into three apparently unconnected gestures?
There’s a real Jekyll and Hyde quality about the man; it will be interesting to see which side wins over the next two nights.
Lang Lang’s Beethoven concerto cycle with the Philharmonia continues until Friday 020 7589 8212