The concert began with Bohuslav Martinů’s Parables, a triptych with which I was unfamiliar. The programmatic work was presented with a mix of orchestral color and a picturesque quality that befitted the 1958 piece. One would never guess the Orchestra was presenting the work for the first time given the technical finish and ease with this they performed the piece.
After a brief break during which the stage extension with the Hamburg Steinway piano and supplementary percussion was raised, Yuja Wang strode on stage to begin the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 1. I am only passingly familiar with this, the least popular of Bartók’s three piano concertos. While I cannot provide a detailed analysis, I can relate that Wang’s interpretation and delivery were more convincing than Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording. For one thing, Wang was able to play with an appropriately percussive sound without lapsing into an unpleasant and unmusical sonority. It’s rare when a work such as this brings the audience to its feet, but Wang and the orchestra pulled it off. The audience, from which nary a cough was heard, was rewarded with two encores: Arrangements of Mozart’s Turkish March and Gluck’s Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice.
Wang has come under criticism in some circles both for her musicianship and the haute couture she wears during her performances. I can report that last night she wore a dazzling yet tasteful black sequined dress. As for the other criticism, I have heard nothing from Wang – either last night or in her recordings – to support the snide remarks made by some critics and on some Internet chat boards. After decades observing and participating in the Classical scene, I can dismiss them as the typical mix of jealousy and pedantry that are part of the cause of the decline in Classical audiences. (The criticism of Lang Lang, however, is justified owing the musical hash he makes of nearly everything he plays.)
Wang has appeared in Zsolt Bognár’s interview series, Living the Classical Life, and I am delighted to present the interview below:
The Brahms Fourth is one of my five “desert island” Symphonies. (The other four, in no particular order, are Mozart’s “Jupiter”, Beethoven’s Seventh, Schubert’s “Great” C major, and Rachmaninoff’s Second.) In terms of musical architecture, Brahms’ E minor Symphony is probably the most perfect work in that genre of the post-Beethoven era. The opening movement’s themes and motifs are developed in a totally organic manner; it is one of the rare symphonic opening movements without an introduction (Brahms composed and discarded one early on). Leonard Bernstein analyzed the many wonders of this movement far better than I could. The finale’s passacaglia is an homage to Bach but delivered in a Brahmsian manner.
Sadly, Hrůša chose a rather lethargic tempo for the opening Allegro non troppo, and from there gave in to the urge to slow down and brood over individual passages. The second movement, a moderate Andante, was paced appropriately but suffered from limp phrasing and a lack of dynamic contrast. The Scherzo came off best, with the triangle passages a bit more prominently heard than usual – or perhaps it was the acoustics of Severance Hall’s row W, where we sat. The finale, like the opening movement, is best heard in a fairly straight line – it’s essentially a headlong slow-motion descent into Hell. Hrůša started off well, but midway started alternating between the accelerator and the brake so the sense of inevitability was disrupted. In the end, Brahms’ greatest symphony, which reconciles the Classic and Romantic traditions, was gently ruined by Hrůša’s essentially immature conception.