REVIEW: Yuja Wang, in a Romantic Mood, Makes Last Minute Visit to NY Phil
MARCH 28, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
The programs had already been printed, but Maurizio Pollini, originally slated to join Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic in Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto on Wednesday evening, cancelled due to illness. Luckily, the popular Yuja Wang has the piece in her fingers, and was ready to step in.
Schumann's sole contribution to the genre drips with Romanticism, and was stylistically innovative. In 1939, the height of his success as a composer and writer, in the periodical Neue Zeitschrift, he waxed about the challenges in writing a concerto for an instrument that had recently come into its own as a full-blown rival to the orchestra, and that he strived to find "...a brilliant new way of combining piano and orchestra, so that the autocrat at the keyboard may reveal the richness of his instrument and of his art, while the orchestra, more than a mere onlooker, with its many expressive capabilities adds to the artistic whole.”
The result is a work that treats piano and orchestra as partners, like a big work of chamber music. The pianist's difficulties arise not from flashy displays of virtuosity, but of enfolding oneself into the texture, and emerging to the fore with a sense of poetry. Ms. Wang, rest assured, would toss off a few encores for those who came to hear flashy virtuosity. But, her musical imagination and limitless technique, along with Mr. van Zweden's quick reflexes, make her rendition of Schumann's Concerto unique and exciting.
Yuja Wang makes bold choices and commits to them. A quirk of this concerto: the soloist spends much of the solo part hovering busily around the middle register of the piano. Ms. Wang applies her skills at creating magical, elusive colors and textures. Her fingers fly around the keyboard with tickling lightness and Olympian aim. Her left hand amazes with rippling arpeggios with no accents, just a perfectly smooth string of beads.
She leans into the work's Romanticism, bringing clarion emphasis to the abounding melodies, with a fiercely individual, personal take. Ms. Wang also explores extremes of dynamics, with a fondness for the Steinway’s response in the most restrained softest of the soft. A dare to lean in and listen closer. She brings the same sense of invitation to her encores, which she dispatches casually, as if she plays these things while sleepwalking, the Liszt transcription of Schubert's "Gretchen am Sprinnrade," and her trademark arrangement of the Rondo alla Turka.
Jaap van Zweden has championed the work of Dutch composer Johan Wagenaar, and his Cyrano de Bergerac Overture, Op. 23 which opened the program. Composed in 1905, the work is in the same vein as Richard Strauss' tone poems, which were popular at the same time, but Wagenaar's music has a more carefree energy and humor. Mr. van Zweden clearly knows the work inside and out, his vivacious account painting a three-dimensional portrait of the famous proboscis-burdened Cyrano. The violins had a particularly good night, their silvery shine fortified with a meaty musculature.
Finally, it was a pleasure to see the Philharmonic and Mr. van Zweden dig their teeth into Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Richard Wagner is often quoted as saying that the Symphony No. 7 in A Major "... is the Apotheosis of the Dance itself: it is Dance in its highest aspect, the loftiest deed of bodily motion, incorporated into an ideal mold of tone." I would posit that this is the Apotheosis of the Classical Sonata form -- the quintessential symphony.
The Maestro led an electric performance of the work. Surely the suspenseful sonic drama achieved in the first movement's slow introduction, "Poco sostenuto," must have taken hours to rehearse. The onset of the "Vivace" felt like the peak of a rollercoaster's ascent, as gravity gently eases the car into a breezy ride.
Mr. van Zweden molded the second movement's great crescendo with a sculptor's hand, and the Philharmonic players responded with exceptional control. When the music changes from minor to major, the clarinet and horn have a lyrical duet that was lovely and pure. The Bach fugue-like section had surgical clarity.
The overall effect of the Allegretto was almost Ivesian -- a marching procession approaching from a distance, passing closely, then off again. The scherzo was bubbly and exhilarating, Mr. van Zweden pressing into the warmth and heart revealed in the swelling hymn-like trio. The orchestra let their hair down in the earthy, jocular two step of the finale.
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