Live Concert Review: Yuja Wang plays Brahms

Yuja Wang, piano

Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Lionel Bringuier, conductor


Widmann: Con Brio – Concert overture for Orchestra

Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2 in B Flat Major, Op 83

Dvorak: Symphony No 8 in G Major, Op 88

Saturday July 18, 2015

**** (review)

Yuja Wang

Yuja Wang

Saturday’s concert at the Sydney Opera House featured the dazzling Chinese virtuoso Yuja Wang in a performance of Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto and guest French conductor Lionel Bringuier who led the orchestra in renditions of Widmann & Dvorak.

Concert goers have eagerly awaited the arrival of Yuja Wang and she has certainly lived up to the hype thus far. Wang captivated the audience with an outstanding account of the Brahms Concerto which, at 48 minutes is a marathon both physically and mentally for any pianist. One of the very first classical recordings I owned on a cassette tape around 25 years ago was Emil Gilels famous 1972 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under Eugene Jochum. What captivated me then, and still captivates me now is the opening cadenza the first movement, after the horn calls and before the orchestral exposition. Gilels played it flawlessly back then and since then, I’ve used it as a benchmark to judge the quality of the performance. It is the ultimate selling point of this concerto. Wang delivered an energetic, powerful opening highlighted by her tremendous use of the sustaining pedal to enhance the gigantic chords in the left hand, together with a beautiful fluency in the right hand which, even at this early stage of the piece, makes some huge technical demands on the pianist.

The scene was set for a terrific interaction between piano and orchestra and they delivered on a monumental scale. The only time when it could be said that the focus was not entirely on Wang was at the commencement of the slow movement which contains the rich and colourful cello solo that principal cellist Umberto Clerici embraced with all the warmth and clarity that it deserves. He received special recognition at the end that was no less than what was required.

Wang dealt a power punch to an old warhorse and her playing was refined and thoughtful. This was particularly noticeable during the finale which is marked Allegretto grazioso. Some pianists treat it as the finale of Liszt’s First Concerto and when this occurs, the overall building blocks of the concerto are lost. She paid due respect to the composer’s intentions and preserved the unique structure of the four movement work in a way that Brahms, who was a stickler for structure, would have been proud of.

Wang did not disappoint her adoring fans with two contrasting encores, with her interpretation of Liszt’s Grand Galop Chromatique living up to its name and thrilling the near capacity concert hall of the Opera House into what seemed never ending applause and appreciation.

Dvorak’s Symphony No 8 in G Major has long been regarded as his ‘Pastorale’ equivalent of Beethoven’s masterpiece. Conductor Lionel Bringuier took the orchestra on a magical ride through this endlessly uncomplicated work which depicts the simplicity of life in the Bohemian countryside. This is a symphony loaded up with energy and vitality but which also stops, if only for a few fleeting moments in the slow movement, to smell the roses. All of Dvorak’s qualities are on show here. His ability to transform simple melodies and exquisite detached rhythms into a cascade of musical gems, represents everything that he is renowned for. When it was time, both the woodwind and brass, especially the French Horns were singled out for special mention by the conductor.

The opening work of the night, Con Brio by Jorg Widmann was a major disappointment and is only mentioned here for completeness. This was billed as a homage to Beethoven and was a work commissioned by Mariss Jansons as part of his 70th Birthday celebrations. Apart from some interesting rhythmic inventions by the timpanist this work lacked any significant musical substance and the audience tended to agree with only polite applause and no curtain calls offered at its conclusion. The orchestra themselves seemed to enjoy the 12-minute expose but unfortunately, it did not deliver on the part of the listener.

– Frank Shostakovich


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