Yuja Wang: Impressive Surface Virtuosity but the Depths as yet Unplumbed

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov and Stravinsky: Yuja Wang (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 20.2.2014 (CS)Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor Op.20
Stravinsky: Petrushka (1910-11, rev. 1947)

During her four-concert ‘LSO Artist Portrait’ series at the Barbican Hall, young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang has certainly made an impression, both musically and sartorially.  In this final concert of the series, tackling one of the warhorses of the repertory, Rachmaninov’s formidable Third Piano Concerto, Wang demonstrated the supreme technical mastery and characterful musical presence for which she has been effulgently eulogised; but there were also signs that there is still some development to come before she can genuinely be hailed ‘one of the most important artists of her generation’.

There is no doubting Wang’s astonishing talent.  From the tender opening bars of the Allegro ma non tanto, her touch was controlled and her ability to rattle off the finger-tripping passage-work with absolute precision was stunning.  The fast central section of the second movement provided a crisp counterpoint to the melancholy lyricism of the movement’s opening theme; and the rapid flights of the restless Finale, the extravagance of which aptly suited Wang’s temperament, were articulated crisply.  Moreover, for one so slight, she was able to conjure a tremendous weight of sound, particularly in the enormous coda of the first movement – and the six-inch stilettos were clearly no impediment to effective use of the pedals!.

Perhaps herein lay some of the ‘problem’: for, while Wang made an impressive impact, power was not always accompanied by convincing passion, or balanced with expressive depth.  The immediacy of the impact was indisputable, but I longed also for quieter, more reflective understatement.

Thus, the simple octaves of the opening theme were precisely placed and thoughtfully crafted but did not instantly draw the listener into the ‘soul’ of the work.  This is important in this concerto, not only because the opening melody meanders so ruminatively, suggesting – as the composer himself declared – that the theme ‘wrote itself’, but also because this melody is the germ of so much of the complexly inter-woven material which follows.  This is a densely unified work.  As Paul Griffiths suggests in his programme notes, it is as if the composer is obsessively revisiting the small motivic cells of the opening melody, compulsively seeking their depth and essence.  Even though the Finale follows on seamlessly, with a rapid flourish, from the preceding, sombre Intermezzo, Wang did not always communicate the over-arching continuity and coherence of the architectural form, nor plunder the work’s expressive profundity.

That’s not to suggest that Wang’s rendition was bland; she did offer some imaginative and original colours, finding interesting voices within Rachmaninov’s dense textures and toying with some of the phrases with quirky use of rubato.  However, while some sudden changes of dynamic in climactic passages were ear-catching, they were not always convincing.

Daniel Harding led the accompanying London Symphony Orchestra in a safe but unremarkable rendition.  Harding did not always immediately catch the pianist’s tempi but he was able to settle the orchestral forces quickly when Wang took off like a whirlwind – although the initial daring pace of the third movement soon relaxed into a more manageable gallop.  The conductor also ensured that the orchestral solos came through: there was some lovely playing by bassoon and horns, and in the first movement cadenza the unobtrusive interjections of flute, oboe, clarinet and horn were beguiling.  The resignedly drooping oboe solo (Celine Moinet) at the start of the Intermezzo was soothingly beautiful, and the instrumental textures in this second movement were well-judged.  Yet, overall I’d have liked more ardency from the strings – surely there was no need for restraint when Wang so evidently possessed the power to rise above orchestral mass?   More rhythmic focus was required too, particularly in the Finale, where the lithe themes gain dynamism from the contrast with more lyrical episodes.

Such rhythmic vitality and richness of sonority was much in evidence after the interval, when the full forces of the London Symphony Orchestra gave an impassioned performance of the revised 1947 version of Stravinsky’s ballet score, Petrushka.  Harding crafted the mosaics, ostinato and medley of multifarious melodies into a satisfying whole, demonstrating an intelligent grasp of the rather cinematic structure of the work.  The angularity of the Russian folk-derived melodies was enhanced by the precision of the instrumental textures. The colours were bright, the rhythms virile and the irregular melodic stresses fluid. 

In the opening ‘Shrovetide Fair’, the rather erratic contrapuntal dialogues and endlessly repeating melodic cells were clearly defined, while driving ostinati provided forward compulsion.  The surging voices of the Easter Song, sonorously played by celli, doubles basses and bassoons complemented the fierce contrapuntal energy, while Gareth Davies’ flute sinuously and captivatingly charmed the puppets to life.

In the second movement, ‘In Petrushka’s Cell’, the incessant, deftly executed torrents of pianist John Alley successfully painted Stravinsky’s vision of ‘a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios’.  There was much superb playing from trumpeter Philip Cobb, most notably in the third movement, ‘In the Blackamoor’s Cell’, where the murderous Moor is soothed by the Ballerina.

Harding drew from his players both ‘modern’ insouciance and luxuriant ‘Romantic’ sentiment, the latter articulated by the passionate pounding of the traditional Russian tunes and dances which, played with joyful exuberance by the strings, drove the final movement to an exciting and satisfying close.

Hugely hyped and inestimably talented, Yuja Wang will return to the Barbican in March 2015 to perform Gershwin’s Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings.  Wang has shown that she can deal effortlessly with the notes on the surface of the page; I’m sure that with time she will begin to convey what lies beneath.

Claire Seymour