Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 26 (1916/17) [29:52]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 1 in D (1888) [59:48]
Yuja Wang (piano)
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
Rec. Lucerne Festival, 11-15 August 2009
Region 0. PCM Stereo
EUROARTS 2057968 [93:00]

Yuja Wang’s career has been going from strength to strength. This is a 2009 performance of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, a work she has toured with - including a London performance. The opening (orchestra only) is beautifully shaped by Abbado and his forces. Wang, clad strikingly in red, has just the right touch for Prokofiev. Quicksilver responses enable her to change attack in the middle of rapid-fire semiquavers. Abbado conducts minus baton, expressively and faultlessly; the return of the slower opening brings a truly climactic sense of arrival, while avoiding anything remotely filmic. The most complex passages are lucidly given here. The orchestra is better drilled than any I have heard in this concerto. The variations of the central movement come initially as balm. Gorgeous string sighs and cheeky bassoon comments set the mood, while the structurally delineating wind chords are perfectly balanced. Spiky articulation from Wang brings character to the movement. True stasis also enters the argument as Wang weaves gossamer decorations. The build-up to the end of the movement is heavy and carries with it a sense of inevitability - indeed, it seems indestructible.

The finale takes the “ma non troppo” caveat of the Allegro tempo indication seriously. There is a slight heaviness in its tread which is entirely apposite. Wang’s technique is beyond criticism - and I include her handling of the slow portions of the movement in this statement. The communication between Wang and Abbado verges at times on the telepathic. It is clear that the high-profile occasion has inspired all parties to something special. Abbado has been here before, on disc: with Argerich, famously, but also with Kissin. This version with Wang stands with its head high in such company.

The Mahler is an Abbado favourite. He conducts without score, and again without baton. The Lucerne orchestra, despite its high-profile make-up, is not all about technical excellence. The mystery of the opening (“Wie ein Naturlaut”) nearly suspends time. Muted horns are beautifully distanced: the music takes ages to come into focus; it does so at the cello statement for the theme from the Winderhorn song, “Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld”. The exuberance is infectious, the sense of Spring-like warmth almost palpable. String tone is burnished; woodwind are perky and sprightly. The great climax towards the end finds the horns in fine fettle - imposingly loud, but perfectly balanced within the section.

Camera-work flicks from one section to soloist and so on too quickly for my liking in the rustic second movement. Better perhaps to close the eyes and savour the music, particularly the marvellously restful Trio.

Abbado’s pacing and dynamic shaping of the slow movement is positively masterful, the Jewish elements coming to the fore almost in the manner of a Bernstein. The Urschrei that opens the finale is bloody and massive. “Massive” is the right word for Abbado’s conception of the finale, and yet it never sprawls - as it so often can. The route to the final peroration is expertly tracked. Most memorable, perhaps, are the quieter plateaux, where Abbado’s daring enables held-breath tension to take over the experience. The conductor’s smile in the final moments - he’s shown just before the horns stand up - is almost worth the price of the DVD alone. I remain less convinced of his decision to conduct in circles towards the end, but this hardly diminishes his achievement. This is a tremendous, glowing performance of the Mahler; the Prokofiev is almost as special.

Colin Clarke

This is a tremendous, glowing performance of the Mahler; the Prokofiev is almost as special.