Although Lang Lang had cancelled this concert late in the day word seemed to have gone around. Having heard that the celebrity pianist was laid up in hospital back at home in China, his most ardent fans had evidently deserted, leaving empty seats around the hall despite the concert having been sold out well in advance.
That was a shame, as Lang Lang was only to have featured in one part of a long and unusual programme. The centrepiece was Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.1 and on either side came highly contrasted works – Berio’s Sinfonia and Berlioz’s Harold in Italy – that offer different responses a century apart to the challenge of reinventing the symphony.
In place of the absent star the young German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott, who already has a recording of the Liszt concerto under her belt, stepped in. This was a weekend of fireworks outside and while it is safe to guess that Lang Lang would have marked it with an explosive display of rockets, Ott preferred the shimmer of the sparkler. There was not enough virtuoso panache here to keep up with a London Symphony Orchestra in full cry, though she did a nice line in quietly rippling scales. Ott’s intimate encore – the Chopin C Sharp Minor Nocturne published posthumously – was a better choice.
Berio’s Sinfonia is one of those works that is big in the history books, but almost invisible today in concert. It is easy to see why: the orchestra it requires is huge and it also demands an eight-strong group of solo singers, here Synergy Vocals. Sinfonia is a relic of the 1960s – the era of anti-Vietnam riots and love-ins echoes through its general air of intellectual self-indulgence with arty spoken texts and fragments of classical masterpieces from Beethoven to Mahler – but in this performance under conductor Daniel Harding it still sounded surprisingly vital.
The Berlioz is something of an LSO speciality thanks to the orchestra’s long association with Colin Davis. Tabea Zimmermann, immediately recognisable from her rich tone, was again the viola soloist and, though Harding does not possess the romantic palette available to master Berlioz colourist Davis, he certainly kept the adrenalin pumping. There was some blistering playing from the LSO. () www.barbican.org.uk