The exceptional Yuja Wang is a revelation at the BBC Proms both on the stage and off it

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 27 – Jimmy López Bellido, Rachmaninov, Walton: Yuja Wang (piano), Thomas Hampson (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Neil Ferris) and Orchestra / Klaus Mäkelä (conductor). Recorded (directed by John Williams) at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.8.2023 and shown on BBC Four. (JPr)

Belshazzar’s Feast at the BBC Proms 2023 © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Jimmy López Bellido Perú negro (UK premiere)
Rachmaninov – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Walton – Belshazzar’s Feast

This belated review of a Prom still currently (as I write) available on BBC iPlayer and Sounds is important to me because I need to discuss how headlines in the music press and social media can be deceptive (if we didn’t know that already). I have not been that invested in the career of Yuja Wang but from some of the things I have glanced at I had the impression that she was – yes – somewhat talented, but also an over-hyped diva due to the obsession many articles have about she wears – or does not exactly wear – on the concert platform. Her playing at this Prom was exceptional yet not over-showy whilst her delightful giggles during the car crash of an interval ‘interview’ showed she might be a fun person to hang out with.

Georgia Mann introducing this Prom’s edited replay announced how ‘Superstar duo, pianist Yuja Wang and conductor, Klaus Mäkelä, take to the stage at the BBC Proms. Now these young stars they’re a power couple of the music world promise to bring us their fresh take on two favourites of the Proms, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Belshazzar’s Feast.

A concerto is not a concerto when it is concertante work or, as here, Rachmaninov’s single movement set of 24 variations (on the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprices for Solo Violin), which was composed over several weeks in the summer of 1934 when Rachmaninov was in exile in Switzerland. It is one of the most enduringly popular of his works. This certainly was the first time I had seen and heard them in their entirety though the deeply-romantic 18th Variation was one I did recognise because it features in a favourite film of mine, the 1980 Somewhere in Time with Jane Seymour and the much-missed Christopher Reeve. We get the first variation before the theme is heard in the violins and Wang picked out a few notes then suddenly her hands were all ablur and that’s how they remained for most if the next 23 minutes. It was a bravura performance from Wang embracing retrained passion, innate elegance, poetry and a certain wistfulness before it exploded in the climactic final glissando of the 24th variation as piano and orchestra cascaded towards the finale where the Dies Irae plainchant – we had heard earlier – infuses the music one last time. Mäkelä drew innumerable colours from the BBC Symphony Orchestra he was working with for the first time and there was – as expected – seamless communication between conductor and soloist. Applause was thunderous and the audience were treated to two perfect-in-miniature encores; Rachmaninov’s virtuosic, yet playful, Polka de W.R. (the initials of the composer’s father ‘Wassily’) and Art Tatum’s typically jazzy arrangement of ‘Tea for Two’.

Yuja Wang plays Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini © BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Georgia Mann was joined by two musicians when discussing the music of this Prom and together they welcomed Wang soon after her performances for an excruciating ‘interview’. There was nothing wrong about the personable giggly Wang but she was subjected to a discussion of Rachmaninov’s apparent 12-note hand span and they seem to have been trying to persuade Wang that large hands were needed when all the time she said they were not, explaining how the music was ‘very transparent and almost Mendelssohn-like, lots of close keys, except the jumps’. Smiling Wang added ‘They always say it’s not the size, its how you use it’. Worst of all Mann wondered (unbelievably?) what they would give Rachmaninov for his 150th birthday! To her credit Wang joined in this nonsense by replying ‘a hug and a vodka’.

After a concerto that isn’t a concerto it was time for an oratorio than isn’t an oratorio but a cantata, Walton’s 1931 Belshazzar’s Feast, which is regarded, I understand, as a staple of the choral repertoire. It is a gargantuan work requiring equally gargantuan massed forces; indeed the BBC Symphony Chorus was 163-strong. Not for the only time in the Prom (see below) the orchestra needed a battery of percussion, plus now a baritone soloist, two brass bands, and Richard Pearce at the Royal Albert Hall’s Grand Organ. Belshazzar’s Feast seems a schizophrenic works with a myriad of influences; from the brass bands of Walton’s youth, to Elgar and Richard Strauss, as well as jazz (especially with the syncopations heard during the final Alleluias).

Osbert Sitwell selected the text from the Bible, focussing primarily on the Book of Daniel and Psalm 137 (‘By the waters of Babylon’). Unfortunately BBC TV refuses to show the words of what is sung during those Proms I have seen so far which needed them. It was often difficult to discern if the chorus was actually singing in English and I hope that was not what was experienced in the vast Albert Hall. Equally, veteran American baritone Thomas Hampson (as protagonist and narrator) may not have been the ideal choice as soloist and seemed to be affecting an English accent in his singing which was, anyway, not the voice he once had and so it was a triumph of style over substance. He resorted to a kind of Sprechstimme for what Walton called his ‘shopping list’ including gold and silver, precious stones, pearls, fine linen, ivory, brass, iron and marble, cinnamon, frankincense, wine and oil … and the souls of men. I suspect Hampson could have made even more of his final words about Belshazzar the king being slain. Mäkelä marshalled all the waves of sounds effectively and the BBC SO played well again for him with several notable individual contributions. For me, on a first hearing, the work sounded too fragmentary, though perhaps that is what Walton wanted.

I had to go to BBC Sounds to hear the first item played at this Prom, Jimmy López Bellido’s Perú negro as the BBC did not show this to those watching on TV. It was commissioned by conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya to celebrate the centenary of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in 2012 and his initials are imprinted in the music right from the start. Although it makes reference to six specific traditional songs, the composer considers its frenzy of Afro-Peruvian rhythms as ‘indeed very personal’. It sounded like an extended fanfare spread over seventeen minutes which stop-started and failed to get anywhere. Also, you could not ignore when listening to it the array – in typical modern music fashion – of percussion instruments involved and it reminded me of the caption on the cartoon about Mahler’s Sixth Symphony ‘Oh no, I’ve forgotten the car horn!’

Jim Pritchard

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