Yuja Wang on Scintillating Form in Tchaikovsky


Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Respighi: Yuja Wang (piano), Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 11.5.2017. (AS)

Rossini – Le siège de Corinthe, Overture
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor Op.23
RespighiFontane di RomaPini di Roma

The Santa Cecilia orchestra is historically perhaps Italy’s most important symphonic institution, having been conducted in its 119-year history by most of the great twentieth-century maestros. Antonio Pappano has been Music Director since 2005, and his regime has been very successful.

Rossini’s overture to The Siege of Corinth is not one of his best-known or indeed one of his most effective concert openers – though come to think of it, none of his overtures are very often heard live these days. Pappano’s rather smartly despatched execution evoked shades of Toscanini rather than those of Beecham or Giulini.

Enter Yuja Wang for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Forget her extraordinary dress sense and her small, deceptively fragile looking frame as she teeters onto the platform in her high heeled platform shoes, for immediately she starts to perform one is aware not only of extraordinary physical power in her playing, but seemingly effortless virtuosity, itself subject to infinite gradations of tone and dynamics. Clearly she is also a profoundly thoughtful musician, for her use of pulse and phrase is magical and completely distinctive. It was not a conventional rendering of the first movement. Some listeners no doubt reacted against her apparently wilful and fairly radical changes of tempo and her sometimes intense inspection of this or that detail, but these departures from the norm were deeply considered, one felt, and not a matter of caprice. It was a miracle that no applause broke out at the end of the movement, as one dreaded might happen.

Her almost unbelievably rapid playing in the faster sections of the middle movement, somehow still possessing a gossamer tone quality, was very extraordinary. Her account of the finale was charged with astounding energy and intense emotional commitment. Pappano and his players gave her ideal support, though sometimes one was not aware of them, such was the magnetism of the solo playing.

After a rippling account of Schubert’s song Gretchen am Spinnrade in Liszt’s transcription Yuja Wang played one of her party pieces as a second encore – Mozart’s Turkish Rondo, with delightful and rather wicked embellishments.

In the second half of the concert Pappano and the orchestra took the limelight in the two luscious Respighi scores. The quiet ending of Fountains of Rome was particularly well managed, with a quiet yet atmospheric sense of stillness. Was it this quiet ending, perhaps thought by Pappano to be anticlimactic, the reason why he and the orchestra plunged without pause into the brilliant beginning of the next work? If so, it was a grave miscalculation, and no doubt the composer would have been displeased.

That said, the performance of Pines was strongly projected and very well played, with a barnstorming “Pines of the Appian Way” to end the work. Was there a recorded nightingale in the “Pines of the Janiculum”? If there was, neither my guest nor I heard it.

The Santa Cecilia is a fine orchestra, but not world class, I think. The strings don’t have the lustrous quality of the greatest ensembles, and though wind solos were impeccably played, the players’ artistry did not seem to be quite on the level of that which we hear in the UK’s finest orchestras.

Alan Sanders

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  1. John Rhodes says:

    Responding to Alan’s question regarding the recorded nightingale:
    At the identical concert I attended (and reviewed) in Zurich a week or so ago, there was also no recorded nightingale – I was waiting for it as, of course, it’s unusual. It’s perhaps too tricky to take the “electronics” on a European tour so instead an orchestra player played a bird whistle, off stage. In Zurich the player came out at the end and showed off his whistle.

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