Conductor: Jaap van Zweden
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 on D Minor, Op. 15
Yuja Wang: Piano
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
Almost one week after basking in the magic of Brahms’ three landmark piano trios with Ax, Kavakos and Ma at Carnegie Hall, this past Wednesday I headed to David Geffen Hall for Brahms’ no less celebrated first piano concerto with Yuja Wang, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic. Because one can simply never hear too much Brahms, especially in such brilliant company.
But the classical music repertoire does not completely revolves around Brahms – or so I’ve heard – and branching out is rarely a bad idea. A case in point was the programmatic pairing of Brahms's expansive concerto with Prokofiev’s slightly shorter Symphony No. 5, a perennially popular piece written to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit during and after World War II. Somehow it sounds more topical today than ever.
Nobody has ever claimed that Brahms did not know how to build suspense, not only by delaying the release of his agonized-over works for years, if not decades, but also by delaying the entrance of the solo instrument in at least his violin concerto and first piano concerto. On the other hand, once they get going, there is nothing stopping them, especially when the soloist is the indomitable Yuja Wang, who naturally packs a mighty force – and a mighty talent – in her diminutive frame.
So it fell on the orchestra and maestro van Zweden to kick start the concerto, which is never an easy task as the music immediately swells into sumptuously Romantic waves that pave the way to its magnificent 50-minute journey, but they did it head-on. What's more, the performance by the young pianist of the score written by the young composer vividly displayed all the passionate intensity and endearing impetuousness of youth. There were some monumental struggles between piano and orchestra, as well as some moments of aching beauty, which all together provided plenty of grandeur and high voltage.
Although we really had to beg for it, the typically generous Miss Wang came back for not one, but two lovely encores. Mendelssohn made a surprise appearance with his Song without Words in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67, No. 2, before we got back to Brahms with his Intermezzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 117, No. 3.
After intermission, the hall, which had been packed during the first half of the concert, was visibly missing quite a few people, but the ones who stayed were largely rewarded. Prokofiev’s supremely accomplished Symphony No. 5 is as accessible as they come, constantly bursting with attractive melodies and superb lyricism, not to mention some macabre strutting and dark brooding thrown in for good measure. In short, there’s a little bit of everything for everybody in it.
The orchestra was obviously having fun with it, emphasizing the most dramatic passages and happily tossing off the sarcastic jokes. They also made the wise decision not to try to make it sound pretty, but the music sure came out vibrant and engaging, and clearly pleased the audience all the way to the truly exciting grand finale.