Wang triumphs in all-Rachmaninoff, all-at-once Carnegie marathon

January 31, 2023
By David Wright
Yuja Wang performed all five Rachmaninoff piano concertante works with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Long before this year’s movie awards are handed out, fans of pianist Yuja Wang were accustomed to the idea of a Chinese superheroine doing everything, everywhere, all at once.

But even they might have blanched at the challenge Wang took on Saturday afternoon—and evening—at Carnegie Hall: to perform everything Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote for piano and orchestra, four finger-busting concertos and a Rhapsody, in a single concert lasting three and a half hours.

And if it wasn’t quite everywhere, the event happened in Philadelphia just hours earlier, as Wang completed the same cycle over two concerts with her Carnegie accomplices, the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. They will repeat these two half-marathons there next month, as worldwide celebrations of Rachmaninoff’s 150th birth anniversary gather steam.

But Carnegie was the big one. To perform one Rachmaninoff concerto requires the stamina of a linebacker, the dexterity of a surgeon, and the soul of an artist. To play all four—plus that brilliant joyride, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—would seem beyond human capacity. But if anybody could pull it off, Yuja Wang, with her impressively efficient technique and unwavering focus, could.

And she did. Centered and balanced on the bench, with no wasted motion, she delivered and delivered, throughout the program, at the loudest climaxes and the tenderest moments. Her shapely and scintillating fingerwork remained unmatched anywhere, and her way with a phrase brought stabs of emotion. Any one of these concerto performances would have been the highlight of a conventional concert program.

For its part, the audience seemed quite content to sit back and take it all in, to savor the differences and resemblances between Rachmaninoff at 18 (Concerto No. 1) and at 61 (Rhapsody) and in between. Though long for an orchestral concert, this event, with its three acts and two intermissions, was comparable to an average evening at the Met (as Nézet-Séguin, that company’s artistic director, would know). The difference there is that, unlike Wang on Saturday, the star doesn’t have to sing the whole opera by herself.

The Philadelphia Orchestra—which has a proprietary attitude toward these works, having performed or premiered and recorded several of them with the composer at the piano—was in fine form throughout, under Nézet-Séguin’s direction. There were moments when one wished the winds weren’t covering what Wang was gently doing at the piano, and a wobbly horn solo here and there (not easily overlooked in Rachmaninoff), but the Philadelphia strings lived up to their opulent reputation, and passages requiring pinpoint timing between orchestra and soloist (such as the fast fugato in the finale of the Concerto No. 2) were right on the mark.

Conductor and pianist seemed to reinforce each other in a predilection for stretching tempos beyond the brief hills and valleys of rubato, even slowing down whole sections for minute inspection. It was daring to take such liberties, and Wang’s playing could be marvelously expressive at such moments, but there was some cost to the overall arc of the piece.

This event was being adjusted till the last minute. A week or so in advance the start time was changed from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., to allow a little more time to strike the show in Philly and move it up the turnpike. Then a program insert announced that the first two pieces would be reversed, Concerto No. 2 coming before No. 1. Possible reasons might include giving the audience a favorite piece to whet the appetite for less-familiar fare to come, or that No. 2’s rolling arpeggios at the beginning made a better warmup for the pianist than No. 1’s jagged octaves.

In any case, the performers cheerfully blew the dust off the iconic No. 2, with its muscular first movement, dreamy Adagio sostenuto, and playful finale. One happily said “Hello, gorgeous” to the big tune at the end, and the ensuing ovation boosted the energy level in the room.

No. 1, composed in 1891 and much revised in 1917, was an intriguing hybrid of the talented adolescent who had a way with a tune and the expert who knew “a fine way/to treat a Steinway.” Grieg and Tchaikovsky could be heard looking over the young composer’s shoulder, but the dark lyricism of Rachmaninoff was already unmistakable.

No. 4, composed in 1924 and repeatedly revised thereafter, found the composer seeking “new paths” rather than trying to duplicate the success of his earlier concertos, with sadly predictable results in terms of the contemporary audience’s acceptance. With perspective and Saturday’s sympathetic performers, however, it emerged as a piquantly modernistic piece with plenty of Rachmaninoff piano magic and echoes of Gershwin and “Les Six.”

Photo: Chris Lee

Conversely, the composer seemed to cheerfully satirize his own reputation for moroseness and sensuality in the bright bauble of the Rhapsody, liberally quoting the “Dies irae” funeral chant and out-lushing himself in the soaring Variation 18. Not surprisingly, the Wang of the jaw-dropping encores was right at home with the piece’s Paganini-style virtuosity and its out-there Romanticism.

That left only the Everest of pianists, the “Rach Three.” An epic in itself, the concerto’s significance was only magnified by this occasion. Showing no signs of fatigue, Wang leaned into the work’s many challenges and beauties, favoring fast tempos, as she and Nézet-Séguin took turns playing the themes straight or with abundant rubato. (Of the first movement’s two cadenza options, Wang played the shorter, more scherzando one, the better to display her matchless articulation.)

The grand and ceremonious peroration of this work’s finale, which always feels like celebrating at the end of a long and perilous journey, was that times five on Saturday. Nézet-Séguin pulled out every allargando in his bag to stretch the splendid crescendos to the limit—the music could take it, and the occasion demanded it—before Wang brought the curtain (and the house) down with a rush of octaves at a speed that was, well, impossible.

On about her fifth return to the stage, and with a nudge from Nézet-Séguin, Wang gave a decidedly spiritual performance of one of pianist Rachmaninoff’s favorite encores, the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, arranged by Giovanni Sgambati.

One must note that the concert was interrupted by a medical emergency in the audience during the finale of Concerto No. 2. Ushers, EMTs and even a percussionist from the orchestra rushed to the stricken patron’s aid, and the concert was able to continue after the audience was assured he was stable and receiving care.

No account of a Yuja Wang event is complete without a fashion report. The pianist wore a different dress for each work on the program, mostly very short, in (respectively) fiery red, white, dark green, and magenta, the unifying theme being large spangles. For the Rhapsody, she accessorized her mini-dress with knee-high boots in sparkly turquoise fringe. She performed the Concerto No. 3 in a long, white, high-slit gown with mirror spangles that sent eye-teasing flashes throughout the hall.

The audience showed a gratifyingly wide range of ages, including one little girl of about eight, who calmly took it all in with just a stuffed animal and a small pink backpack for company. As she left the hall with her adult, one imagined her telling people about this occasion sometime in the 22nd century.

The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yuja Wang will perform these works over two days in Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, 8 p.m. Feb. 4 and 2 p.m. Feb. 5. The concerts are now listed as sold out, but tickets may become available.

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