Too much Yuja and not enough Schumann in Wang’s subbing with Philharmonic

Thu Mar 28, 2019 at 1:14 pm
Yuja Wang performed Schumann's Piano Concerto with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Caitlin Ochs

Yuja Wang performed Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic Wednesday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Caitlin Ochs

It was to have been a one-night-only appearance with the New York Philharmonic of one of the sovereign interpreters of the Romantic piano repertoire. Then Maurizio Pollini called in sick.

But Wednesday night the show went on, with Schumann’s Piano Concerto as planned. By happy coincidence, another prominent pianist was touring with the work, and added the Philharmonic to her schedule on a few days’ notice.

At 32, Yuja Wang is at the opposite end of her career arc from the septuagenarian Pollini, known more for her youthful flamboyance and dazzling digital prowess than for the depth of her interpretations. Her choice to perform the Schumann work, the least showy of Romantic piano concertos, seemed to signal an intention to make her art more grounded and take a few steps further on that arc.

Her performance of the concerto’s opening bars Wednesday night, however, seemed to indicate just the opposite. Instead of Schumann’s crisp opening flourish, Wang produced a kind of roar, a Lisztian blur of fast chords. Conductor Jaap van Zweden brought the orchestra in at a much more deliberate tempo, and a game of tag ensued, the conductor striving to keep his players in some kind of coordination with the pianist’s whims, which consisted mostly of playing faster when the music was loud and slower when it was soft.

Wang’s technical ease, and especially her pearly arpeggios, were certainly an asset. But her bursts of nervous energy, followed by slumping into unfocused interludes, might have been better suited to Schumann’s volatile early piano pieces than to this classically minded concerto from his middle years.

In the brief, delicate Intermezzo, the orchestra’s sound (especially the cello section and wind soloists) was so clear and projected even in the softest dynamics, and the pianist’s tone so vague, almost to inaudibility, that the performance seemed to be taking place in two different rooms.

But as so often happens, a fast finale brought the cavalry riding to the rescue of a troubled concerto performance. After some initial disagreement over tempo, soloist and orchestra caught the rhythmic wave, and good things flowed forth: the pianist’s top notes projected more brightly, the orchestral tutti sounded clear and lively, the few bars of Meno mosso before the final dash fell gracefully into place, and the big finish was as in-time yet exuberant as anyone could wish.

But maybe not everyone. The pianist, for whom standing ovations are the current norm, got a sitting one for the concerto. Her first encore, Liszt’s pianistically enhanced transcription of the Schubert song “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” moved some ways down the showy road from Schumann, but it was the second one, her much YouTubed mashup of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” as extravagantly fantasized by Arcadi Volodos, Fazil Say and herself, that brought the fans to their feet.

The program had plenty to offer besides its headline soloist. Johan Wagenaar’s Cyrano de Bergerac Overture was likely unfamiliar to most in the audience, but is apparently enough of a repertoire staple in the composer’s (and van Zweden’s) native Netherlands that the conductor could lead it without a score.

Wagenaar’s models were Berlioz and Richard Strauss, and Wednesday’s rendering could have used more of the quirky lyricism of the former and the lushness of the latter. Instead, van Zweden drove this energetic and exceedingly well-coordinated performance hard, hard, and hard again.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony opened with more of that clear, nicely layered-wind playing in a soft dynamic, but the orchestra’s sound hardened in forte. The main Vivace lost some momentum because of carelessness with rhythm, but its development section was more in time, to better effect. Sometimes this performance didn’t make the distinction between a long crescendo with tension and suspense and just getting gradually louder.

The rhythmic uncertainties of the first movement didn’t bode well for the Allegretto, with its obsessive dactylic pulse, a hard thing to get just right in performance. But van Zweden held it steady through the many iterations of the theme. A bit more tension and urgency, especially in the fugue, would have enlivened the performance. The winds spoke together well in the challengingly fragmentary, pianissimo ending.

The scherzo is marked Presto, and van Zweden’s tempo was all that and more. But if one is going to turn a piece into a virtuosity show for the band, better do it with x-ray clarity, like Yuja Wang’s flashing fingers. Wednesday’s performance, though vigorous and mostly together, was a little short of that. In the trio, the theme’s rests were a little cheated, but the fortissimo bloomed splendidly, without the hardness heard elsewhere in the evening.

There wasn’t much brio in the Allegro con brio finale, only a kind of steely determination, focusing on speed. This finale wasn’t lifted by rhythm, as the Schumann finale had been, and van Zweden didn’t entirely resist the temptation to play faster when the prevailing note value was longer (quarters) and slow down for the eighth notes. Still, the orchestra stayed together, broke the tape in record time, and earned an ovation for teamwork and athleticism.

The New York Philharmonic, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, performs Mahler’s Sixth Symphony April 11, 12 and 13 in David Geffen Hall.; 212-875-5656.

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