Pianistic Pyrotechnics

I am missing my annual visit to the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall. My first visit was in 1947 and in the following year I had a season ticket, and have tried most years to go to one or two concerts since. But thanks to B.B.C. TV I have watched several of this year’s programmes, and it has been almost as good as actually being there. I think the programming has been a bit odd – even esoteric – with an emphasis on anniversaries of one sort or another, but that’s a question of preference and taste.

I have just been watching a re-play of two of this week’s concerts, both featuring works for piano and orchestra. Stephen Hough concluded his survey of all four of Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos with a bravura performance of the composer’s Concert Fantasia in G major with David Robertson conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Generally agreed to be an unequal piece, it was new to me and I enjoyed it very much, as did the audience. Full of piano pyrotechnical challenges, Hough who has become a favourite of the promenaders, was fully equal to its demands.

The previous night the renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor. I have since read a fairly cool review of his performance, the critic implying that the pianist ‘played’ with the music. Certainly he is a performer, in love with music to the point of ecstasy, flirting, smooching even with the key board, but also achieving exquisitely delicate and faultless playing. The audience went mad when it was over, and the encore, almost a formality, was never in doubt. He is an astonishing and still very young artist, and on this occasion had the advantage of being beautifully accompanied by the Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Fabio Luisi.

What is it that makes ordinary mortals play like these and many other virtuoso pianists? Much of the time most of these two weren’t even looking at the keyboard, their fingers dashing up and down with consummate confidence, Lang Lang in particular, seeming to commune with higher powers – or the Albert Hall ceiling.

Learning to play the piano was one of many of the things I have tried to do and failed. (Learning Spanish is another!). I managed to plod through one of Beethoven’s early sonatas, but never became proficient enough to play without being glued to the score and making many errors. I even stumble at this computer’s keyboard! And yet here are these amazing international artists who seem to belong to another species of human being and bring such delight to those who love music.