Individualism and introspection from Yuja Wang at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC PROM 63 – Rachmaninov, Brahms: Yuja Wang (piano), Staatskapelle Dresden / Myung-Whun Chung (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 5.9.2019. (CS)

Yuja Wang (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor Op.30
Brahms – Symphony No.2 in D major Op.73

The queues were snaking round the block when I approached the Royal Albert Hall – curling round the Hall, slipping down the steps leading to the Royal College of Music, winding along Prince Consort Road.  If there was an empty seat in the Hall, I couldn’t spot it.  And, the roar that welcomed pianist Yuja Wang to the Royal Albert Hall stage left no one in any doubt whom the capacity audience had come to see.

As ever, determined to be a feast for eyes as well as ears, Wang walked with perilous caution towards the Steinway, on stratospheric gold stilettos and glittering in a pink thigh-slashed gown.  But, if such exuberant glitz raised hopes among the over-excited Prommers of a full-on emotional roller-coaster of a Rachmaninov concerto, then such hopes would be dashed by the first few bars of the Wang’s first theme – each note the same weight, the same dynamic, the rhythmic values metronomically measured.  When the piano broke away in semi-quaver elaboration – which Wang delivered with almost mathematical particularity – the violas seemed to be denied the opportunity to find their feet in their statement of the theme, to intimate to us its potential passion and power.  Indeed, conductor Myung-Whun Chung seemed content to let the instrumental solos, themes and gestures ‘happen’.

I’m all for a Rachmaninov Concerto that doesn’t bleed Hollywood schmaltz; that offers litheness and leanness, rather than superficial lushness.  Moreover, Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto has so much dark soulfulness and despair.  And, in principle, and at times in execution, I found Wang’s introspection thought-provoking, even transfixing.  But, while I admired her independence, courageous musicianship and – it really goes without saying – her astonishing technique and ability to coax from the piano sounds which delight and surprise, unsettle and bewilder, there was something about Wang’s performance that left me feeling unsatisfied.  Only a foolhardy reviewer, surely, would ‘criticise’ Wang’s pianism: it’s formidable.  (Perhaps a brave critic might venture that she favours her left hand over her right, and that the latter – no less brilliantly executed – does not make an equal impact in terms of weight, colour?)  But, I left the RAH wondering whether a few singing lessons might give Wang something to think about?

Perhaps it was the less-may-be-more approach of Myung-Whun Chung (the orchestra’s first Principal Guest Conductor) that I found problematic.  Having got the Allegro ma non tanto underway, he seemed, after a few bars, to almost stop conducting.  His gestures and podium movement throughout were minimal, sometimes indiscernible: the players of the Staatskapelle Dresden were repeatedly hushed, restrained and reined in.

But, I think it was also that, alongside the agonising and questioning, there is also hope in Rachmaninov’s Concerto; as the composer digs down deeper and deeper, so he rises up, in confidence, intimating – perhaps achieving – triumph.  What I missed were those cathartic realisations of human achievement and fulfilment; the knowledge that the soul-wrenching harmonic sequences would, eventually, find release, the music brushing aside and rising above the confines of human suffering.  I felt that Wang and Chung did not permit us such emancipation.

There was, at times, surprising anger and bitterness, though easefulness too – no-one could deny that the Dresden strings have a lovely sheen (which we enjoyed greatly in the subsequent Brahms Symphony).  The combination of ferocity and precision in the first movement cadenza was breath-taking, and, after a lovely flute solo, the concluding rhythmic rubato welled with the emotional-physical wrenches that the Concerto compels from performers and listeners alike.  Wang’s control is indeed awesome: and the quelling of the first movement’s volcanic potential in the closing post-cadential episode was impressively authoritative.

The strings were permitted a little bel canto indulgence at start of Intermezzo, but Wang’s entry almost brutally banished their sentiment, substituting a translucence, clarity and coolness which was not unwelcome and which the strings challenged at times.  Here was a sense of that eternal ‘battle’ between soloist and tutti for dominance – but there was no doubt who was the conqueror and who was vanquished.  I almost winced under the onslaught of ‘violence’ that linked the second movement to Finale: Alla breve, though the clarity of articulation was astonishing.

The arrangement of the Dresdeners was rather unusual: as we looked at the stage, the right-hand side of the tiered instrumental seating was empty – the centre was occupied by woodwind and, behind, brass; the left by raked double basses and percussion.  Perhaps it was because I was seated on the left of the Hall, that I often found the Finale orchestrally bottom-heavy, and Wang’s right-hand mercurially glistening but somehow lacking in the substance of the piano’s middle and lower registers.  That said, she made the whole Hall shudder – viscerally and emotionally – with the power and passion of the accelerando towards the close of the Finale.

The Prommers were never going to be satisfied without an encore, and Wang acquiesced, first offering an arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise in which pace trumped poetry – where would a singer take a breath? – and the conclusion of which seemed to slide somewhat inconsequentially into silence rather than fade into ethereality.  Then, it was time for ‘Tea for Two’: a distinctly Earl Grey and lemon affair, with little finger cocked as the Royal Doulton was decorously lifted.  Not surprisingly, the RAH erupted in hearty, warm cheers.  This was undoubtedly an astounding display of piano technique and interpretative confidence: and, equally, I have no doubt I will be accused of mean-spiritedness – or cloth ears – for not joining in the euphonious eulogising.

After the interval, the Staastskapelle Dresden had the pleasure – so obviously shown, felt and heard – of playing music that is really in their blood: Brahms’ Second Symphony.  And play from the heart the Dresdeners did.  The sight of eight double basses reaching vigorously towards the heights of their fingerboards, with unanimous vigour and grace, was wonderful to behold, while the antiphonal tension of first and second violins – the latter led with especial dynamism by Holger Grohs – emphasised those distinctive Brahmsian rhythmic tugs-of-war, such as surge strongly in the development of Allegro non troppo.  There was much to enjoy: a fine horn solo at close of that first movement, and at the start of the next – sure and confident playing, with warm, focused tone; gleaming strings at the climactic heights; crystalline woodwind textures in the Adagio non troppo above restless lower strings.  The Allegretto grazioso had a delightful spring in its cello-pizzicato-step as the oboe meandered its way, peaceful and assured, before the strings bit the Presto bullet and whirled ahead in a staccato storm.

Chung had the measure of the whole, and with assured control shaped a lyrical, thoughtful and detailed account.  Yet, for all the sunshine and warmth that Brahms enjoyed in Pörtschach, on Lake Worth – where he summered in 1877 – and which found its way into the Second Symphony leading some to dub the work ‘Brahms’ Pastoral’, there is a deeper darkness than I felt Chung drew forth.  Brahms had written to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, ‘The new symphony is so melancholy that you can’t stand it.  I have never written anything so sad, so minorish: the score must appear with a black border’.

I longed for a little more uncertainty and tension in opening movement: the gait felt, to my ears, a little too loose and easy, the tempo a fraction languorous.  Yes, Brahms does add the perennial ‘non troppo’ to his Allegro marking but a little more momentum might have enhanced the underlying restlessness of the music.  Colour, too, might have been emphasised: those initial trombone entries are surely more menacing than Chung intimated, introduced by ominous timpani trills and heard again, troublingly, before the return of that heart-warming second subject in the movement’s recapitulation.  Similarly, at the start of the Adagio, the trombones and tuba can cast a portentous shadow on the cellos’ melody – here played beautifully and earnestly.  Such details are resolved and reconciled in the trombones’ final golden blaze, at the top of their register, at the close of the Allegro con spirito – a movement which seems to me more breathless, brazen, and devil-may-care than Chung suggested.

We had an encore: Brahms’ first Hungarian Dance.  It swayed and swooped with carefully measured license, but this folk fiddler seemed in need of another tankard or two.  That said, the Dresdeners’ gloriously rich sound was compensation enough for any ‘missing’ spontaneity.

Claire Seymour

1 thought on “Individualism and introspection from Yuja Wang at the Proms”

  1. A thoughtful review, and I’m glad to see one that tries to dig beneath the usual applause for showy performance. I too am an admirer of much of Wang’s work, but I found this performance very disappointing–the first time she has sounded to my ears more like Lang Lang or one of the other big-bang, fast-as-you-can merchants (a constant hazard in this particular concerto). Wang’s pianism may be as agile as ever, but there was so much lost detail, so little grasp of architecture, that much of the piece sounded like a series of isolated displays of technique. (I didn’t hear the introspection CS found, just a miscellaneous and summary treatment of many passages.) And the orchestral accompaniment was so lame that I didn’t bother to listen to the Brahms after the interval–though I may now after reading this useful review.


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