Yuja Wang and the Philadelphia Orchestra scaled a musical Mount Everest this weekend, performing all four of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos in a single concert at Carnegie Hall. In preparation for this marathon engagement, they previewed the program over two nights on the orchestra’s home turf, Verizon Hall. These evenings offered insight into the Philadelphians’ lasting connection to the beloved Russian composer, Wang’s highly idiosyncratic approach to her instrument, and the strengths and weaknesses of endurance-testing performance cycles.

Yannick Nézét-Séguin bows before Yuja Wang
© Chris Lee

Although Rachmaninov only wrote one concerto specifically for Philadelphia – the splashy, jazz-inflected Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor – his affinity for this orchestra after arriving in America is well documented. He called the Philadelphians “the greatest orchestra in the world” and when you hear them interpret his music, you can understand why. The unique Philadelphia sound suits Rachmaninov’s style beautifully, with its acres of lush string tone, its sense of suspension and Romantic sweep, and a freedom of rubato that can add a silken texture to the music. All those elements remained on display under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who has re-established Rachmaninov’s position as the orchestra’s unofficial mascot.

Yet the performances also showed how Nézet-Séguin has refined and deepened the core orchestral sound during his tenure in Philadelphia. The woodwinds have gained a newfound sense of intimacy in recent years; in the Second Piano Concerto’s Adagio sostenuto, the coupling of flute, clarinet and Wang’s piano line functioned almost like a chamber music trio. The brass fanfares that punctuate the first movement of the Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor were perfectly tuned and supremely balanced – at times mimicking a military call to arms, otherwise seeming like a whisper against the backdrop of Wang’s hard-charging keyboard strokes and masses of strings. American influence was all over the Fourth Piano Concerto: not just the expected jazziness, but the wail of the blues and the free rhythms of 1920s dance music.

For all her glitzy personal affect, Wang is a serious, introspective artist, and at times, her soft-grained playing seemed at odds with the dynamism of Rachmaninov’s sound world. Generally, she excelled in quieter moments, like the largely unaccompanied Andante passages in the First Piano Concerto, which emerged with the delicacy of morning dew cascading off a leaf. She added an emotional weight to the tuneful Allegro scherzando in the Second, infusing a touch of anxious brooding into the movement’s pinprick fingerwork. Of course, she brought a turbocharged energy to the Intermezzo: Adagio and Finale: Alla breve sections of Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor that run headlong into each other, but I left remembering her sophisticated approach to the Allegro ma non tanto.

Yuja Wang, Yannick Nézét-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra
© Chris Lee

Yet soloist and conductor occasionally fell out of sync when Nézet-Séguin turned up the dial in the orchestra. The myriad passages in the Second Piano Concerto taken at forte absorbed Wang entirely, and in the Fourth, you sometimes wished for a juicier solo sound to match the grand effects of all the sections working at top speed. The Third was perhaps the most successful overall outing because the soloist so often takes the lead independent of the orchestra, but there were still moments when Wang seemed to be swamped.

The program’s unexpected triumph was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which was performed both nights. Wit and sparkle characterized the interpretation at the first concert, where the piece capped the evening. It felt like a tasty dessert after a serious multi-course meal. But on the second night, sandwiched between the Fourth and Third Concertos, it took on a greater interpretive weight. A keen listener could hear roiling turmoil in the inclusion of the Dies irae in the seventh variation, as well as the influence of Stravinsky and even Shostakovich on the composer’s late-career style. Anyone quick to characterize this work as merely a bagatelle would be forced to revise their opinion after such an interpretation.

After nearly four-and-a-half hours of music-making spread across two days, Wang took to the bench for a single encore. She eschewed the flashy repertoire she frequently favors in exchange for a subtle transcription of Glück’s Mélodie from Orfeo ed Euridice. By this point, she had nothing left to prove.