Beijing-born pianist Yuja Wang, dazzling in a red sequinned dress slashed to the thigh and in the highest heels imaginable, teetered onto the stage at the Royal Albert Hall last night and proceeded to win every heart in the 6,000 capacity audience with her mercurial reading of Rachmaninov’s titanic third piano concerto.

Yuja Wang © BBC | Chris Chistodoulou
Yuja Wang
© BBC | Chris Chistodoulou

This is a pianist who is never afraid of a bit of rubato, which in other hands could become portentous but here seemed so appropriate for such an emotional, overwrought work. And she found an ideal partnership with the stylish Staatskapelle Dresden under principal guest conductor Myung-Whun Chung.

As Wang set off with that familiar unison song-like opening theme we began a first movement of translucent wonder, the orchestra controlled and restrained, even when the piano writing became explosively feverish. The florid orchestral passage which ushers in the second subject was a beautifully done, blossoming like some hothouse flower before subsiding back under the soloist, strings whispering, woodwind chattering, awaiting yet another emotional outburst. There were times when the orchestra seemed like an anxious parent, trying to sooth a difficult child, only for her to lash out again with another display of fiery defiance.

The glorious sheen on the Staatskapelle strings ushered in the calmer second movement with Wang in pensive mood, but even here Rachmaninov does not let the soloist reflect for long, with tetchy outbursts and then splendidly declamatory passages, realised so passionately by Wang.

The madly virtuosic right hand scampering demanded of the soloist in the second serves merely as a prelude to the frantic nature of the third movement, with Wang at her most brilliant, despatching fistfuls of notes with breathtaking ease. The headlong dash to the close was thrilling to behold, the Prommers ecstatic in their acclaim for this exceptional pianist, who appeared to wipe away tears of happiness as she left the platform.

She gave us more Rachmaninov as an encore – his heartbreaking Vocalise (lashings of rubato here) and then added a wonderfully jaunty arrangement of Tea for Two. Delicious.

Myung-Whun Chung © BBC | Chris Chistodoulou
Myung-Whun Chung
© BBC | Chris Chistodoulou

Brahms’s Second Symphony filled the latter half of the programme, a suitable showcase for this classy orchestra, its joyful, sunny themes full of opportunities for horn, oboe and flute to shine in melodious solos and for some fine string playing. Chung, directing without a score, is clearly a conductor who works his players hard in rehearsal and then trusts them to deliver the goods on the night. That trust seems well placed; he rarely needs to resort to grand gestures to get the results he wants. This orchestra must have played the symphonies of Brahms countless times yet this felt both at ease with itself and totally fresh, such was the refined grace of the playing.

At the calls, Chung took his bow and then swept the band straight into a bravura performance of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 1, pulling it around like a battered hat that has gone out of shape; a gloriously exuberant close to an outstanding Prom.

*****