The 47th Istanbul Music Festival is well underway, and Saturday’s (nearly) all-Russian programme from the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Yuja Wang, and Gustavo Gimeno showed that it is not wanting for energy nor ideas.

Yuja Wang and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg
© Ali Guler

Tchaikovsky’s seldom-performed fantasy overture to the Tempest is a hefty opener, clocking in at nearly half an hour. As one of Shakespeare’s most elusive plays, it doesn’t always gel with the broader emotional brushstrokes of Tchaikovsky’s style, and as a consequence it sounds more like his full-blooded adventure in Romantic poetry Manfred than the enigmatically musical isle of the play. An unfocused introduction with some woodwind intonation issues made for a ragged opening, with scattergun entries lacking coherence. Things really did perk up in the Allegro section though, with terrific horn playing – bells raised in moments of high drama – and exemplary Rachmaninov-esque effusiveness from the strings. There was plenty of genuine excitement in the work’s various episodes – Ariel’s sprites were deliciously mischievous. But it’s an awful lot of sound and fury though, which even the exquisite legato stick technique of Gimeno can’t fix, and neither the opening nor close could marshal the atmosphere or mystery that must bookend its thrills and spills.

The heart of the concert was a double bill from superstar Yuja Wang, whose magnificent Louboutins alone would merit eight hundred words. Rhapsody in Blue was introduced by a daringly rakish clarinet solo, complemented by louche brass solos. Wang, from her first entry, was teasing and mercurial, taking plenty of rhythmic liberties, as well as volatile tempo and mood. Parts of it really picked up on Gershwin’s (perhaps unwitting) modernity, some passages even sounding like the machine-music of Conlon Nancarrow. It was chaotic, weird even, but certainly edge-of-the-seat stuff: I’d even be willing to put aside some of the cascades of wrong notes for this kind of boldness. Gimeno and the orchestra played along with gusto, with some of Wang’s more experimental takes on the work rounded out by more conventional lusciousness in the strings, rich and fragrant as the honey and Turkish clotted cream I had for breakfast.

Wang returned after the interval for Shostakovich’s wily Piano Concerto no. 2 in F major. Where her Gershwin had been capricious and improvisatory, this was laser-like in precision. Her performance trod an ambiguous line between the neoclassical coolness of the work and its menace and mania. By the end the fanfare theme became alarmingly claustrophobic, and it was in the rifle-crack of the snare drum that Wang found her closest counterpart in the orchestra. But this vigour was also tempered by Wang’s restraint elsewhere, cooly monochrome in lyrical passages redolent of Bach. Gimeno’s band found real bite and energy in this music, though it never spilled over into feverishness; the first movement’s coda was radiant and glowing, even if intimating the destructiveness lingering in the work’s shadows.

Gustavo Gimeno and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg
© Ali Guler

The Andante, scored for just piano and strings, was a still and glowing intercession. Wang’s playing was intensely private, summoning the mysterious otherworldliness of late Beethoven, and her delicacy in shaping and shading Shostakovich’s lyrical drama was superlative. The quality of her dynamic control, changing texture and colour on the head of a pin, was pure magic.

The finale was white-knuckle stuff. Wang’s passagework and articulation at these barnstorming speeds were little short of miraculous, driving the orchestra to greater virtuosic heights in response: both soloist and band loped through the jerky, distended rhythms with bravura ease. It was a performance of mesmerising focus, with Wang carrying all before her, both onstage and in the auditorium. A rapturous reception unsurprisingly yielded two encores.

Firebird played up the LPO’s lyrical strengths again, in a reading that looked back at Stravinsky’s Romantic and Impressionist forebears rather than spotlighting the idiosyncratic and starker path he would take in the years to follow. The opening motto from the double basses was unusually oaky and ominous, large in sound but quiet in volume; the Firebird’s dance itself was poised and elegant, charting a path back to Tchaikovsky with its melodic deftness and intricately painted textures.

The Infernal Dance again convinced most in luxuriant string lines, as if some great unwritten score by Stravinsky’s mentor Rimsky-Korsakov, even if the sequence lacked a little in rhythmic intensity and coordination. It was in the quiet of the Berceuse that we got a peek at the sinuous and recursive woodwind melodic landscape of Le Sacre, Gimeno summoning inscrutable, shadowy textures from his muted strings. The finale was lyrically abundant, with the sound growing broader and more spacious with each return of the horn’s melody; in the final bars the trombones were radiant.

Benjamin's press trip was sponsored by the Istanbul Music Festival.