Photo, Chris Lee

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Guest Reviewer, Susan Stempleski

Yuja Wang has built a career on stunning displays of virtuosity. But tackling all five of Rachmaninoff’s works for piano-and-orchestra during one afternoon represented an audacious challenge over which, with her physical stamina, steadfast focus, and exceptionally competent technique, she triumphed. Her achievement was not only artistic; it was also historic. No other artist has played these works in a single concert at Carnegie Hall or – as far as I have been able to determine – anywhere else. With two ten-minute pauses, two twenty-minute intermissions, and an interruption due to a medical emergency in the audience which halted the final movement of the program opener for a quarter of an hour, the concert verged on four and a half hours. Wang remained totally concentrated and she played from memory, with riveting self-possession and emotional engagement.

The Philadelphia Orchestra – which has a unique relationship with the pieces on this program, having premiered the Fourth Piano Concerto and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and recording all five with the composer as soloist, Ormandy or Stokowski conducting – performed superbly throughout the marathon event. With Yannick Nézet-Séguin directing with total commitment, exceptional precision, and gorgeous phrasing, the ensemble sounded consistently gleaming and glorious, and in complete synchronization with the pianist.

The program order was changed at the eleventh hour. A printed insert and a pre-concert announcement revealed that the first two pieces would be reversed, with the Second Concerto preceding the less-familiar First. From the first notes of the C-minor’s muscular opening Moderato, as Wang’s instrument inexorably intoned its stately chords in a steady crescendo, it was clear that she was completely comfortable in this repertoire. Following a powerfully expansive first movement climax, she shaped a beautifully tender treatment of the central Adagio, replete with romantic ardor and delicacy. The playful Finale had all the sparkle and bravura one could want, with the lyrical melody turned seductively poetic.  

Following a ten-minute break (and the first of four costume changes for the soloist) came a fanciful and warmly romantic rendering of the revised F-sharp minor Concerto – in its final (1917) version. With excellent support from Nézet-Séguin and his forces, Wang displayed plenty of expressive fervor in all three movements, especially the vibrant Finale where her scintillating playing generated an abundance of fire and excitement.

Lacking the grandiose themes present in Rachmaninoff’s other Piano Concertos, the Fourth (final version) might be considered the black sheep in the group. Only the second movement has a conspicuous melody, and the music can sometimes seem uncharacteristically detached. However, as interpreted by Wang and the Philadelphians, the piece came off as a mostly lively modernistic work marked by a singular jazzy quality with echoes of Gershwin, and a subtly attractive romanticism in the melancholy motif of the Largo.

Wang’s astounding technique was highly effective in her charismatic approach to the Rhapsody in which the composer puts the Paganini theme (Caprice Twenty-Four) through a series of infinitely imaginative commentaries. She played the opening with relatively subdued sound, which was sometimes subsumed within that of the orchestra, but when the music broke into more elaborate passagework, she executed the brilliant flourishes with crisp brio, fine detail, and a surplus of fiery virtuosity. The highpoint was the celebrated Variation XVIII, bursting with poetic feeling and passionate fervor.

After three-and-a-half hours of music-making, she continued to be dazzling through the grueling Third Concerto. After allowing the warmth of the simple opening to unwind with engaging spontaneity, she brought the rest of the herculean work to life in an astounding account which built up to the greatest possible tension in the closing climax. In response to the thunderous ovation and a gentle nudge from Nézet-Séguin, on her fifth return to the stage, she calmed things with a serenely delicate rendition of one of her (and Rachmaninoff’s) favorite encores: Giovanni Sgambati’s transcription of the ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ from Gluck’s 1762 opera, Orfeo ed Euridice.


Piano Concerto No.2 in C-minor, Op.18

Piano Concerto No.1 in F-sharp minor, Op.1

Piano Concerto No.4 in in G-minor, Op.40

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43

Piano Concerto No.3 in D-minor, Op.30

Yuja Wang (piano)/The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin

This review will also appear on The Classical Source website