An Astounding Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto from Yuja Wang
United States Prokofiev, Mahler: Yuja Wang (piano), New York Philharmonic, Jaap van Zweden (guest conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 14.4.2012 (BH)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 (1917-21)
Mahler: Symphony No. 1 in D major (1884-88; rev. through 1906)
It’s a pity the brouhaha over Yuja Wang’s concert attire (e.g., at her 2011 Hollywood Bowl appearance) has sometimes overshadowed what people should be discussing—her artistry. And this Avery Fisher Hall performance of Prokofiev’s bilious, chatty Third Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic was eye-opening evidence of a major talent on the upswing.
With often breathless tempos conductor Jaap van Zweden was the enabler, drawing corrosive timbres from the orchestra, who were all contributing as if possessed. Most impressive was van Zweden’s ability to fuse the ensemble with its soloist; rather than just “riding above the orchestra” as some pianists do, all were united in a seething acidic mass, with some crunchy textures created in the process.
Ms. Wang is a marvel, and she is just twenty-four years old. Not only was her articulation close to ideal at the many breakneck speeds, but despite her petite frame, she draws an enormous sound from the instrument. Prokofiev’s concerto is filled with wildness, but Wang seemed to thrive on it. But what equally impressed—over and over—were those moments when the composer calms his rhythmic barrage and allows the gentler side of his persona to ooze out. Here Wang pulled back dramatically, finding poetry in the smallest details, before eventually gearing up for the next propulsive drive.
It’s rare that pretty much an entire audience will be on its feet at intermission, but that’s what happened here. After several curtain calls Ms. Wang quickly reseated herself for not one but two encores: her own vivaciously entertaining take on Vincent Youmans’s “Tea for Two,” and a mellow Gluck-Sgambati’s “Dance of the Blessed Sprits” from Orfeo ed Eurydice.
Mahler’s First Symphony was the first piece van Zweden ever conducted; he clearly loves it and his thoughts give an audience much to ponder. In this fascinating performance, at some points his hyperactive body language threatened to overshadow his results. The friend with me suggested he might be on the verge of “over-conducting”—over-compensating for his newish status with the group, and wanting to direct every last sixteenth-note. That said, whatever odd strategy was afoot, the results generally made for a fresh, even startling rethinking. My sole question mark—a query rather than a complaint—is about those moments of Mahlerian repose, when the uproar evaporates, leaving eerily calm spaces in which time seems to stand still. In this case, time really did seem to find itself obstructed; van Zweden settled into leisurely idylls and the momentum often ground to a halt. Nevertheless, he knew when to give the big moments the charge they require.
Principal double bass Timothy Cobb opened the third movement with what my friend thought was the sweetest solo he’d ever heard in this piece. (I mention it because van Zweden didn’t cite him during the curtain calls—his only other transgression.) The horns were about as sublime as they can get. Brass and percussion offered brilliant diversions, the sound rising up in glare when needed, uniting in majesty later on. Throughout, van Zweden jumped, hurled and froze in profile; this is not a conductor of discreet gestures. But never mind: seeing almost the entire orchestra vigorously applauding him at the close—with many in the audience standing—counts for something.