For the last two weeks, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra has had pianist Yuja Wang as artist-in-residence.  In addition to two performances with the Orchestra, she gave a recital of works by Scriabin, Chopin and Balakirev.  The final concert with the Orchestra on Saturday featured her début in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, unusually scheduled as the opening work.

Jaap van Zweden © Hans van der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans van der Woerd
To describe Yuja Wang’s playing as “pyrotechnics” may be hyperbole, but she certainly has a reputation for gymnastic prowess at the keyboard.  Despite Alfred Brendel’s reference to “unsurpassable pianistic perversions”, I never thought Yuja Wang would have any difficulty overcoming the technical challenges in the Brahms concerto.  My curiosity was more her ability to adapt to the work’s demands on the soloist’s role – almost as an integral member of the orchestra, at times leading it and at other times being subservient to it – and how she would handle the wide range of subtleties.

On rapport with the orchestra, Wang came up tops.  The moment she took over from the horn within seconds of the concerto’s opening, it was clear that she was consciously keeping her wild-horse predilections in check.  In fact, her entry was deliberate and somewhat ponderous, as if she was careful not to scare the horn and oboe away.  For the rest of the first movement, her bantering and cat-and-mouse interplay with the orchestra worked superbly well, never for a moment, though, dulling her own artistry at the piano or cowing the orchestra into submission.

Wang’s entry into the scherzo second movement was a little rushed and blurry at the beginning, but the orchestra came to her rescue with a luscious rendition of the lyrical theme that gave her just the cue to let loose her galloping discourse.  Given free rein, she asserted her confidence, but never over the top or flamboyant.  The long introduction on cello and woodwinds kicking off the third movement was touching and wistful, but not mawkish, for which we have Principal cellist Richard Bamping to thank.  The soloist, though, showed her vulnerabilities.  She undoubtedly tried very hard to blend in with the ensemble, but there were moments when she was out of step, and out of her depth.

No sooner had her last note in the third movement finished than Wang launched into the light-hearted romp of the finale.  Full of brightness and cheer, her touch was light and airy, as if she was careful not to crush the delicate material.  The movement offers opportunities to be cheeky and prankish, especially for a pianist of her youth, but perhaps self-consciously keen to be mature and decorous, she was less adventurous than expected.  Even the crashing conclusion to the movement lacked the usual finality in its resolution.

In her third collaboration with maestro Jaap van Zweden performing works for the first time, Yuja Wang and the Hong Kong Philharmonic pulled off an admirable feat in Brahms’ monumental concerto.  In time, she will grow to embrace the deeper subtleties of the work with more aplomb.

Scheduling a concerto with a star soloist in the first half of the programme risks turning the second half into an anti-climax.  On the contrary, the two works after the intermission were just as exciting as the Brahms concerto.  In Debussy’s La Mer, Jaap van Zweden’s enthusiasm for the work was visibly infectious.  The build-up in the first movement, “De l’aube à midi sur la mer” (From Dawn to Noon at Sea), to the rising sun over lapping waves was resplendent and quite dazzling.  In “Jeux de vagues” (The Waves at Play), swooping harp glissandos helped us imagine playful mermaids trying to outswim each other in the water; and the ebb and flow of surging waves whipped up by the brassy wind came to a thrashing close in “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” (Dialogue between the Wind and the Sea).   In the hands of a less talented conductor, the work would have disintegrated into fragments of an orchestral hodgepodge.  Under Jaap van Zweden, the Hong Kong Philharmonic traced the wallowing orchestral elements with crystalline clarity and made everything hang together beautifully.

To round off the evening, percussionist Aziz D. Bernard Luce began beating the snare drum almost inaudibly as the flute joined in with probably the most recognisable tune in classical music, that of Ravel’s Boléro.  As layer upon layer of instrumentation added to the richness of orchestral colours, the steady rhythmic pulse moved inexorably towards a sudden change of key and, after a few trombone swirls, everything coming to a screeching halt, whipping the audience into frenzied applause.