Yuja Wang, born twenty-four years ago in Beijing, is a very attractive young woman. She looks particularly comely in a heavy, Russian-style fur hat, and five photographs accompany this CD to prove it. Such is the way nowadays, and those of us who find this kind of thing excessive are perhaps no longer living in the real world. All the same, five of them, plus others, including one of her apparently playing the piano in a sand pit! Claudio Abbado does get a look in, with two photos, and even that chap, what’s his name? – ah yes, Rachmaninov, there’s quite a nice one of him, so he’s not forgotten. The booklet also offers a track-list and an essay by Jessica Duchen in three languages that features quotes from the pianist and which is a very easy read indeed.
Miss Wang’s website is a slick affair, though not quite up to date: as I write the current disc doesn’t seem to feature. Looking at the young pianist’s performance schedule is perplexing. She spends her life shooting from one concert venue – and from one country – to another. And one wonders how much satisfaction there is to be had from playing Prokofiev 3, Rachmaninov 3 and the Paganini Rhapsody so many times with so many different orchestras and conductors.
But what of the current disc? Should you buy it? Well, it depends whether you like your Rachmaninov, and in my case the answer is a resounding “yes!” A word of warning, though. The performance of the concerto is live, and that of the Rhapsody may also be, but the only mention of this is in the booklet essay, with no sign at all on the outside. The audience is absolutely silent during the music, but then there’s the phantom bravo-shouter: he’s enough of a pest at concerts, and not everyone wants to invite him home.
I’ve never quite got on with the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The theme itself irritates me, and Rachmaninov’s variations, for the most part, don’t amount to much in my view. And then there’s the supremely irritating use of the Dies Irae theme. Still, the work’s reputation is safe without my approval, and this is as fine a performance of it as you’re likely to hear; easily fine enough to stand alongside such classics as Ashkenazy with Previn. Listeners will notice exceptionally nimble finger work from the soloist in the dryer, bravura passages, and no lack of power where needed. The orchestra makes a gorgeous noise – listen to variation 16 – with clarity to the fore. A firm, well-defined bass line is also noticeable. The big variation is played with real ardour, but overall there is a restraint here that we don’t always encounter.
The C minor Piano Concerto was the first Rachmaninov I ever heard. I loved it then and love it still. Indeed, I think it is a masterpiece of its kind, the epitome of the romantic piano concerto. One reads in the booklet that Miss Wang studied the composer’s own performance of the work, “controlled and classical as others can be extrovert and passionate”, according to Jessica Duchen. The pianist is quoted as follows: “Instead of sounding very broad in what you might expect to be huge lyrical moments his sound remains amazingly transparent.” This is certainly of a piece with her view of the work, and Abbado was clearly also in sympathy. A beautifully controlled crescendo characterises the opening series of chords, and the big melody on unison strings is articulated with clear bow strokes, far from the ill-defined super-legato one often encounters. There is no undue lingering anywhere in the movement, so that the few passages of padding do not draw attention to themselves. Then listen to the care taken over the voicing in the orchestra in the four introductory bars of the slow movement! The following flute and clarinet solos are as fine as you would expect from hand-picked players; there’s a certain coolness too, quite in keeping with the reading, as is the near-absence of any slowing down in the last two pages. The finale is brilliantly played, with wonderfully clear articulation from all concerned, frequently allowing details to emerge that one had never really heard before. And if I wouldn’t go so far as to use the word “classical” when describing this performance, there’s no doubt that there is no room here for over-indulgence. Those who prefer high-octane Rachmaninov might find this reading under-characterised, but I found it refreshing and totally convincing. For all the care and control there really is no want of passion. As for showy pianism, it’s all there in the writing, and this brilliant young artist has no need to add to it.