Review: Yuja Wang Sweeps Through a Rachmaninoff Marathon

Yes, Yuja Wang did an encore.

After playing, with electric mastery, all four of Rachmaninoff’s dizzyingly difficult piano concertos and his “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” on Saturday — the kind of feat for which the phrase “once in a lifetime” was invented — she would have been forgiven for accepting a sold-out Carnegie Hall’s standing ovation, letting those two and a half hours of music speak for themselves, and heading home for a bubble bath.

But this is a superstar artist as famous for what comes after her written programs as during them. At Carnegie in 2018, she responded to waves of applause with seven encores. Appearing with the New York Philharmonic a few weeks ago, she returned to the keyboard no fewer than three times.

So on Saturday, the audience hushed as Wang, after all she’d already done with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, sat back down at the piano and played the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.” It had the same freshness and tender lucidity that, in her hands, had lay beneath even Rachmaninoff’s densest, most ferocious fireworks.

She didn’t seem to have broken a sweat — neither on her face nor in her music-making, which had been calmly dazzling all the way through the final flourish of the Third Concerto at the program’s end.

To these scores’ vast demands she brought both clarity and poetry. She played with heft but not bombast, sentiment but not schmaltz. Her touch can certainly be firm, but not a single note was harsh or overly heavy; her prevailing style is sprightly, which is why the concert didn’t feel like eating five slices of chocolate cake in a row. In the 18th variation of the “Rhapsody,” the work’s aching climax, she began demurely and dreamily before adding muscle. But when the orchestra joined in, a point at which many pianists begin to pound, she refused to hammer.

She didn’t give the sense that she was pacing herself, either, over this very long stretch. With five breaks — two pauses, two full intermissions and one long, impromptu stop spurred by a medical emergency in the audience that interrupted the Second Concerto, the opener, just after the final movement had begun — the concert lasted about four and a half hours.

Wang took on her marathon with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra.Credit…Chris Lee

The program was flanked by the Second and Third concertos, touchstones of the repertory for the past century, and also included the youthful First; the changeable, big-band-inflected Fourth; and the playfully kaleidoscopic “Rhapsody.” The composition and revision of these five pieces extended almost from the beginning to the end of Rachmaninoff’s career, from the early 1890s to the early 1940s. (He was born 150 years ago this April.) But all of them share his unmistakable stamp: the sumptuous soulfulness, the soaring expansions, the restless rhythmic shifts and, of course, the alternation of fierce energy and intimate reflection in the piano.

Wang is nimble at that alternation, with power and accuracy in fast fingerwork and fortissimo chords — and, just as important, patience and elegance in cooler moments. Her pillowy chords at the close of the Second Concerto’s middle movement floated quietly into place, and she was shadowy but luminous before that piece’s ending romp.

Before the final plunge near the end of the Third Concerto, the piano takes one last, brief inward look. Wang shaped this passage with exquisite detail: the first two chords gentle, the next suddenly louder and surprisingly tough — tougher than she’d sounded in solo moments like this during the whole concert — before the rest of the phrase ebbed into mist. This handful of measures painted a whole situation and personality: vulnerable, strong, searching but not lost. It was as memorable as the blazing runs and octaves that followed.

The program’s first block, the Second and First concertos, might have involved shaking out some jitters over the momentousness of the occasion. Whatever the reason, there was a sense of audibly finding the right gear among Nézet-Séguin and this orchestra — which has a historical claim to Rachmaninoff, having premiered the Fourth Concerto and the “Rhapsody” before eventually recording all five of these pieces with him as the soloist.

The Second Concerto’s opening movement was unsettled on Saturday, and the balances seemed off: The strings, less rich than turgid, swamped the winds and often Wang. Rubato stretched the line, but everyone wasn’t always stretching in the same direction. Wind solos felt excessively manicured, to the point of preciousness.

But things gradually settled in. Apocalyptic storm clouds moodily gathered underneath the piano line in the first movement of the Fourth Concerto. And by the “Rhapsody,” which followed the Fourth, the ensemble had taken on the ideal Rachmaninoff sound: glittering and grand.

The Philadelphians were practically feline in the iridescent orchestration of the grim Dies Irae’s appearance in the “Rhapsody.” A shivering hush in the first movement of the Third Concerto was like a snow in which Wang made soft footsteps with the palest chords. In the second movement, the winds at the start sounded as flexible and natural as they had all day, and the orchestra now seemed to sweep Wang’s lines upward rather than smothering her in the race to the final measures.

That culminating dash had the easy sparkle of Wang’s best work. The concert also showed off, perhaps better than ever before, another defining feature of her performances: flamboyant clothes.

A lot of them. She wore, along with her typical very high heels, a different dress for each of the five pieces, with skintight fits and shimmering fabric in red, ivory, green and silver — and, most immortal, a magenta minidress for the “Rhapsody” paired with sparkling periwinkle leg warmers. (Alas, there was no costume change for the encore. Next time!)

With the controversy that greeted Wang’s attire choices 10 or 15 years ago now thankfully muted, we can concentrate on the joyfulness of those choices, which on Saturday were apt partners for these fundamentally joyful works. Virtuosity on this level, in material this ravishing, is elevating to witness — which is why, even after so many hours, I was left at the end feeling an exhilarated lightness. Like many others I saw, I drifted up the aisle and onto the street unable to stop smiling.

Yuja Wang and the Philadelphia Orchestra

Performed on Saturday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.

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