On Saturday night, the New York Philharmonic programmed Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. The soloist in the Brahms was Yuja Wang. I thought I knew just how it would go.
She would play neatly and intelligently, of course. But she would not have a Brahmsian sound. Her sound would not be big or rich enough. The concerto would be too small.
Diana Damrau, the German soprano, once told me in an interview, “Your voice is your voice. You can’t go to the store and buy another one.” Similarly, Yuja Wang has a “voice.” It is perfect for the Ravel G-major concerto, let’s say. Or for Mozart. But for the Brahms D-minor? You need some heft—real sonic authority—and you have to play deep into the keys. That’s not Yuja. Give her some Scarlatti.
She did indeed lack the right sound, especially in the first movement. But the performance was wonderful. Great, actually.
Wang came out in her usual concert attire, namely stripper-wear. She could not possibly have been wearing less without being arrested. There was nervous laughter in the audience.
On the podium was Jaap Van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s music-director-to-be. And the concerto begins with him, of course—with the orchestra alone. The orchestra played with just the right weight, or the right texture. The sound was neither too big nor too small. This is hard to pull off.
The opening pages ought to be suspenseful, giving a sense of anticipation, a sense of things to come. On this occasion, they did. You knew that you were in expert hands, namely Van Zweden’s.
Yes, Wang did not have a true Brahmsian sound. But she has so many other things. Limpid passages were truly limpid. Passages that ought to sparkle, certainly did. And when she came to the big, fast octaves, Wang sounded Brahmsian. These octaves were Brahmsian, without question.
In many of his pieces, Brahms is both Classical and Romantic, and this applies to the D-minor piano concerto. Van Zweden reflected this blend. And the French horns were unstumbling. I almost checked my program to be sure I was at the Philharmonic. The horn-playing throughout the concerto was a treat.
Beginning the second movement, Adagio, Van Zweden was thoughtful, inward. The music sounded private, as though others shouldn’t be listening. The Philharmonic played extraordinarily well.
When she came in, Wang took many liberties—liberties in tempo and phrasing. I bought it. I bought every note. Wang was so musical, she was virtually spellbinding. The Adagio had its quiet, inward awe.
At the beginning of the concluding Rondo, Wang could have been stricter in her rhythm. It was as if she hadn’t quite decided on her tempo, and was working it out as she played. But she was stable thereafter. The woman’s facility is astounding. Her trilling was exemplary. When Brahms breaks into D major, she hammered elegantly, just as he wants her to. And it was fast, pleasingly fast.
The piano part ends with a tricky figure, played twice. Wang muffed it the first time but was better in the second.
In decades of listening to this concerto, played by anyone and everyone, I have seldom heard a performance so beautiful, interesting, and exciting as this one with Yuja Wang and the New York Philharmonic, under Van Zweden.
Wang sat down for an encore, a Mendelssohn Song without Words (the one in F-sharp minor, Op. 67, No. 2). It was beautifully sung, beautifully breathed—graceful and endearing.
The second half of the concert brought that Prokofiev symphony, No. 5. It is like an essay or study for orchestra, or like a concerto for orchestra. It happens to be right up Van Zweden’s alley in that it requires discipline, intensity, and calibration. The conductor delivered, and so did his orchestra.
By the way, that symphony, written almost 75 years ago, still sounds like it comes from outer space. A nutty and brilliant work.
Through most of the symphony, I did not have a sense of the conducting. I could not really hear Van Zweden conduct. I was just hearing Prokofiev’s Fifth. I did hear this, however: Van Zweden was conducting, and the Philharmonic was playing, as if things mattered. The music was not on auto-pilot. The orchestra was not punching a clock. Van Zweden was not merely waving his arms.
You should be able to take this for granted, but experience teaches you you can’t.
Individually, many Philharmonic players shone, but I will single out the clarinetist, Anthony McGill. He was in what I think of as “the Marcellus role”—for Robert Marcellus was for many years the clarinetist in the Cleveland Orchestra, making all those recordings under George Szell, including of this Prokofiev symphony. Marcellus would have been impressed by McGill, I think. McGill was a model in every phrase he played, and every sound he made.
Hats off, too, to Robert Langevin, the principal flute. Prokofiev liked the flute, didn’t he? (And wrote well for it.) Think of that sonata, swiped by violinists.
In the closing pages, Van Zweden really turned on the electricity. But then, so does Prokofiev. What a satisfying evening, Saturday night at the New York Phil.