On Friday night, the London Symphony Orchestra played a concert in David Geffen Hall, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. He is the principal guest conductor of this orchestra—one of two. The other is Daniel Harding. Starting next season, Noseda will be the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Sir Simon Rattle, currently the head of the Berlin Philharmonic, will become the head of the LSO.
Are all these musical chairs clear?
On Friday night, Noseda and the LSO began with Wagner, the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, that great, C-major hymn. There are several ways to play this piece. In initial stages, Noseda was slow, grand, and relaxed. The music had little struggle, tension, or muscle in it. It was almost singer-like. It breathed beautifully.
Noseda was brisk and strong at the end. I happen to like the final stages grander, plumper, slower. Again, there are several ways to skin this cat.
But back to the beginning of the piece—the very beginning: something weird happened. There was a failure, a misfire, on the very first note. I’m sorry that your correspondent (i.e., me) could not identify it.
The program continued with a piano concerto, that in G major by Ravel. The soloist was Yuja Wang, the young Chinese pianist. I have reviewed her in this concerto over and over, and I will spare you a detailed accounting now. In fact, I most recently wrote about Wang in the Ravel from the Salzburg Festival, a couple of months ago: here.
Suffice it to say that this is one of her best pieces. And Ravel is one of her best composers. She has the nimbleness, the clarity, and the finesse required. You know, I often criticize her for playing other composers too much like Ravel! The Liszt Sonata, for example, should not necessarily be Ravelian (although I have appreciated her in this work).
On Friday night, she was superb in the first movement. She was nimble, of course, and shivery—shivery in her runs (Ravel’s runs). She was also fast—very fast. The movement is marked Allegramente (an unusual marking), but she was more like Presto. Still, she was superb. With her loose arms and hands, she can play anything. There is no nerve or sinew to block her. She is wet spaghetti.
In the second movement, Adagio assai, she was not at her best. The movement was out of shape. It did not have its desired arc. Also, Wang was mousy, with her right hand. She did not sing out.
I happen to like attacca, or nearly attacca, after the second movement. I think the third should be launched almost immediately. Wang and Noseda disagreed. In any case, Wang hammered the movement elegantly, as one should. This movement is a toccata, essentially. And Wang simply lets it happen, as she did on this occasion.
She sat down for an encore, and this, too, was a toccata, basically. It was the final movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, Precipitato. Funnily enough, it had been played in Carnegie Hall two nights before. Denis Matsuev, the Russian pianist, played the entire sonata. Wang played it well enough—she certainly had the notes—but the music never really caught fire, in my view. It did not give the thrill it can.
Regardless, she sat down for another encore. This one was Mozart’s Rondo alla turca in the famous Arcadi Volodos arrangement. And in the famous Fazil Say arrangement. What Wang does is combine the two. She did not play the music with her usual panache, I’m sorry to say, appearing to be somewhat hurried and distracted.
In any event, she sat down for a third encore. I’m not sure I had ever heard three encores after a concerto. And two, almost never. Wang played Schubert’s song “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” in the Liszt transcription. You recall that I said that, in Ravel’s second movement, Wang failed to sing out? Well, she really failed to sing out in “Gretchen.” And it is, after all, a song.
After intermission, Noseda conducted the LSO in a great symphony, the Fifth of Shostakovich. He and the orchestra did well by it. Personally, I could have used more intensity and fear in the opening movement. But Noseda conducted it with reason and understanding. The third movement, the Largo, is one of the great slow movements in the entire symphonic literature. Noseda caught the sweep, or arc, of it nicely.
I’m going to sound like a broken record: I like attacca, or nearly attacca, into the fourth movement. Noseda took his time. At any rate, the movement began tight and martial, just as it should.
I have not said very much about this performance—uncharacteristically little. I found that I just listened to the symphony, without doing much criticizing, mentally. That is a form of praise. Indeed, high praise.
Let me end with a footnote. Years ago, in an interview, André Previn said that he always used a score to conduct, no matter how well he knew the piece. Doing without a score, in his view, was always “a conceit.” Yet there are other conductors, of course, who often do without a score. (The late Lorin Maazel was one.)
Gianandrea Noseda used a score for all three of the pieces on Friday night. He did a lot of looking at those scores, too. Now, I would bet that he knows every note of these pieces by heart, and has since he was a teenager. This is an interesting subject, to be taken up, perhaps, at another time.