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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30 [40:46]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 16 [30:58]
Yuja Wang (piano)
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. live, Sala Simón Bolívar, Centro de Acción Social por la Música, Caracas, Venezuela, February 2013

There’s no shortage of piano prodigies these days, and the Far East accounts for quite a few of them. Beijing-born Yuja Wang is no exception; her career has really taken off and now she has a recording contract with DG, whose excitable A&R department will guarantee her maximum publicity. They’ve certainly done wonders for Li Yundi and Lang Lang; indeed, these pianists are touted as the fresh, young and very photogenic saviours of what doomsters see as a dead or dying art. Gustavo Dudamel is also a media sensation, but the hard-sell - designed to attract new audiences - is just as likely to alienate the old ones.
Pairing Rachmaninov’s Third and Prokofiev’s Second is a shrewd piece of marketing though; both works are highly virtuosic and they give the soloist and orchestra quite a workout. Trouble is, there’s so much competition in this repertoire - especially in the Rachmaninov - so whatever their public profile young artists face a huge challenge. In his review Brian Wilson lists some of the more familiar competitors. I’ve chosen Vladimir Ashkenazy/Bernard Haitink and Valentina Lisitsa/Michael Francis - both on Decca - as my comparative versions in the Rachmaninov; for the Prokofiev I've selected Michel Béroff/Kurt Masur (EMI/Warner).
Lisitsa’s Rachmaninov Third is one of the highlights of her set (review). Control of rhythm, phrasing and dynamics are exemplary, and the London Symphony Orchestra are wonderful companions for the journey. First impressions of Yuja Wang’s reading - snippets of which I’d heard as a 24/96 download from Qobuz - are not unfavourable. I was expecting an attention-seeking performance, perhaps even an unremitting one, so the soft-grained Allegro came as a pleasant surprise. For the most part I warmed to her playing, even though it doesn’t have the suppleness - that elusive give and take - that I so admire in Lisitsa’s recording.
The gap widens in the Intermezzo, which exposes imprecisions in the orchestra; and for all her inwardness Yuja Wang never seems quite at ease with this lovely, surging music. True, she is splendid in its grander moments and she delights in the glitter, yet the initial spell, hesitantly cast, is too easily broken. As for the finale both soloist and orchestra are too precipitous and Dudamel’s overheated tuttis are most unwelcome. DG’s recording is nothing special either, even allowing for the exigencies of a live concert; there’s not much depth here, and climaxes are thin and fierce. By contrast the piano lacks focus in the quieter, more reflective passages.
If you want a multi-layered modern recording of this concerto that combines Romantic blush with judicious musicianship - not to mention a top-notch recording - then Lisitsa is the one to go for. The downside is that the latter’s performance is only available as part of a two-disc set, not all of which is entirely recommendable. That said, those who idolise Yuja Wang won’t be deflected; the audience’s roar of approval at the close says it all. Sadly the pleasures of Yuja Wang’s Rachmaninov are just too intermittent. As far as old-school interpretations go Earl Wild and Jascha Horenstein (Chandos) haven’t worn too well, but Ashkenazy and Haitink are as fresh and compelling as ever.
I’m very attached to the Béroff/Masur set of Prokofiev concertos, not least for the anarchic gleam that suffuses so many of those performances. Admittedly the sound is bright and forward, but few rivals capture the tic and twitch of these St-Vitus-like scores with such glee. The second concerto has long stretches of cumulative virtuosity that Béroff handles with aplomb; for all her dexterity Yuja Wang never quite balances the see-saw of emotions - now mercurial, now melancholic - that the music demands. Naked note-spinning simply isn’t enough, I’m afraid. That said, the biggest turn-off is Dudamel’s grotesque tuttis in the Scherzo. Nasty and disproportionate they disfigure an already overblown performance.
I’m generally very well disposed towards Dudamel, yet all too often his natural - and infectious - enthusiasm overpowers his good judgment. The result is capricious - how ponderous the start to the Intermezzo - and the aggressive recording just compunds one’s sense of bewilderment and fatigue. Alas, Yuja Wang throws herself into the finale, which sounds unpardonably crude and incoherent. Showstopper it may be, but there’s far more to this strange, penetrating score than these artists would have us believe.
No amount of assiduous marketing or fetching cover shots will persuade me that discs like these are a good proposition. Do they broaden the appeal of classical music - a well-rehearsed hand-wringer in this business - or do they simply feed the ravenous cult of celebrity that flourishes via social media? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions, but I do accept that Yuja Wang is a very gifted pianist indeed. One can only hope that her talent is sensibly directed rather than ruthlessly exploited; then perhaps we’ll hear just how good she really is.
Decent Rachmaninov, misjudged Prokofiev; raw accompaniment and recording.
Dan Morgan

Previous review: Brian Wilson

Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov piano concerto 3