December 8, 2013
This disc is a kind of follow up release to the recent CD with Yuja Wang doing the Rach 2nd plus the Rhapsody (Paganini's Theme) under Claudio Abbado with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Now, however, we are going full tilt with the young Turks of the DGG classical division catalogue, so that Ms. Wang in now accompanied by the Simon Bolivar orchestra of Venezuela (who seem to have aged out of their former 'youth orchestra' tag?). Our leader is the formidable Gustavo Dudamel. Oh yes, this reading was recorded 'live' in Venezuela, so neither the pianist nor the orchestra players got do-overs.
Listening to the fearless way Yuja Wang often tackles Rachmaninoff's nearly constant, busy keyboard writing, I started thinking of a concert hall tale. The story goes, when the composer heard Vladimir Horowitz play his third piano concerto, Rachmaninoff supposedly decided on the spot that he would retire from playing it because nobody could be expected to play the third concerto better than Horowitz was playing it. If you've heard the later stereo “live' recording that Horowitz did in New York with Ormandy conducting, you begin to grasp the plausibility of the tale. Hearing Yuja Wang, one wonders what Rachmaninoff would have felt and said. She simply has an unflagging muscularity that can leave a listener breathless in more than one of the third's famously challenging passages. It's not just that Wang is indeed hitting all the notes, but that she maintains tempo in many passages where even very good virtuosos have tended to slow down a bit, taking occasion to breathe. Also rather scary in the way Wang can shift gears without blinking an eye. She goes from lyrical to acrobatic to muscular to sizzling scherzando …. just letting the third concerto continue to flood out like a force of Nature, loosed. One at first predicts that she will lose her way, musically, and just end up pounding. But no. Again and again, Wang lets the familiar Rachmaninoff kaleidoscopic flow find its rapids, its reflecting pools, its burbling curls. The third concerto for my first time hearing it this way, even gets pretty scary in more than one moment, with Wang bringing off the percussive interlude/improvisation passages of the third movement with such formidable muscle and growling that I'm not sure I've ever, ever heard anybody go all the way in her manner. Then there is the big culminating climax of the last movement where orchestra players and pianist more or less pull out all the stops as the big tune is reprised.
Thanks to Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar players, the whole thing is given, all of a piece. I can hardly recall hearing another conductor and orchestra so deftly inhabit the same tempos, inflections, and shifting musical narratives with the solo pianist ….. as do Dudamel and SBSO. All those passing Rachmaninoff instrumental 'duets' are exquisitely joined by Wang at the keyboard and this or that or the other player in one of the orchestra departments. The places where most performers take leave to go just a tad hinky so that everyone has time to get on board are simply played out, seamlessly here. You'd think everyone had been playing chamber music together, and now decided to pump out a concerto for fun. Scary, fun.
By all rights, it should take listeners a few minutes to recover from hearing the Rach third played like this. But no sooner has the 'live' audience applause died down, than these same musical forces dive into Prokofiev's second piano concerto. It also seems to have been recorded, 'live', in concert.
The one slight reservation about 'hard' piano tone that I held onto concerning Wang and Rachmaninoff turns out to be a boon in her Prokofiev reading of the second piano concerto. The edge her keyboard tone can gather helps this concerto be as much of a modernist musical bulls eye as any Prokofiev reading on disc to date. Again, Dudamel and his SBSO players are utterly at one with Ms. Wang through all four movements. The composer's muscle and percussive handling of the piano, along with the players of SBSO, never over shadows those piquant lyrical touches, nor muddles the clarity of Prokofiev's fondness for his own kind of improvisatory counterpoint. Passages which can sound academic and meandering, all at the same time, even in many welcome readings of the second concerto, here come across with drama. For once the second holds consistent interest, not least via high contrast juxtapositions of musical foreground and background, all within a recognizeable Prokofiev 'sound.'
Bravo, SBSO players! Bravo, Ms. Wang! Bravo, Dudamel! As the second concerto's audience applause comes ashore at the end, one again realizes: These two high wire piano concertos have really been played, 'live' …. and in retrospect, the liveness caught fire in more than a compelling virtuoso technical display.