Glittering Interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos and Paganini Rhapsody Holds Its Own

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By Alexandra Doro, Music Critic

When it comes to Rachmaninov’s piano concertos, the recorded history boasts a dazzling array of interpreters who have left an indelible mark on these iconic compositions. From the maestro’s own recordings in the 1930s to modern virtuosos like Daniil Trifonov, the journey through Rachmaninov’s concertos has been a rich and illustrious one. Now, piano sensation Yuja Wang steps onto this hallowed ground with her survey of Rachmaninov’s five monumental works, recorded during concerts at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Hall in February.

Wang’s ambitious project followed a series of awe-inspiring performances across North America, including a remarkable marathon at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In this marathon, Wang embarked on a Herculean task, playing all five concertos in a single day alongside Yannick Nezet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. However, for her recordings with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, she wisely chose to space out the concertos over a fortnight, allowing for a more measured and profound exploration of these masterpieces.

Having previously recorded three of these works, Wang approaches this survey with the maturity and depth of a seasoned performer. In her interpretation of the First Concerto, Wang effortlessly captures its flashy exuberance and quicksilver mood shifts. Her collaboration with Dudamel and the orchestra results in a performance that balances virtuosity with sensitivity, particularly in the Andante, where she teases out the concerto’s lyrical essence.

In the Second Concerto, Wang presents the famous opening chords with a sense of impending drama rather than mere romantic indulgence. However, some may find the slow movement slightly brisk and prosaic compared to other interpretations. Yet, Wang’s fiery command shines through in the concerto’s finale, showcasing her technical prowess.

The Third Concerto, known for its complexity and ambiguity, presents a unique challenge for any pianist. While Wang’s interpretation may not exude the same sense of mystery and introspection in the opening theme as other performers, she excels in shaping the tracery of the second theme and delving into the slow movement’s exquisite details.

The Fourth Concerto, though energetic, displays moments of unevenness in the rapport between orchestra and soloist. Wang’s approach here may not be as convincing as in other parts of the recording. However, her rendition of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini shines with the expected brilliance, even if she tends to linger a bit too long on the music’s lyrical moments, notably in the famous 18th variation.

In the realm of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos, no single pianist’s perspective is likely to be consistently convincing. Therefore, the practice of selecting and blending interpretations from different pianists for each concerto remains a viable approach for those who seek the most nuanced and comprehensive experience of these timeless compositions.

Yuja Wang’s survey of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos and Paganini Rhapsody adds a new chapter to the storied history of these works, offering listeners a chance to appreciate her virtuosity and evolving artistry. Her interpretation, while not without its moments of critique, holds its own in the pantheon of Rachmaninov’s interpreters, contributing to the ongoing legacy of these beloved concertos.

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