Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor is virtually the last, and one of the best, of all the great romantic piano concertos. Revisionist attempts to play down its unabashed emotion always seem to undersell the work. No chance of that with Yuja Wang and Zubin Mehta, performing for a large festival audience with many Russian visitors. From the opening of the Allegro ma non tanto this was an assured collaboration. Wang expertly inflected her opening statement of the first theme with only the subtlest touch of rubato. In the passagework between the first and second subjects, often heard as a routine bridge, Wang’s playing drew the attention with its glittering quicksilver lightness. The splendid first bassoon, with his distinctive reedy tone, and the first horn, often delighted with contributions neatly dovetailed with the soloist’s work. Wang’s stunning playing of the big original cadenza seemed to inspire the wind players as it led into the softer section where the flute, oboe, clarinet and then horn restate the first theme, accompanied by ineffably delicate arpeggios from the soloist. Romance under a night sky (perfectly visible from this open air hall).

Yuja Wang and the Israel Philharmonic
© Reinis Oliņš

If the lovely Adagio recalls Hollywood, it is important to remember that the concerto was written in 1909, so Hollywood got there second. The lush romanticism of this performance never felt underplayed or less than sincere, simply given without indulgence; but with immaculate phrasing and balance in this warm acoustic, it worked as well as ever it can. The acoustic provides a concerto balance associated with recordings, i.e. we hear every note of the piano’s role, even in complex orchestral textures. If I were a pianist, I would carry this hall’s acoustic around with me and insist on using it every time, unless I was afraid of the demands of this most difficult of repertoire concertos.

No such fears concern Yuja Wang, whose pianism in the finale approached incandescence. She can fire off the double octaves with the best of them, but with an insouciant precision, swiftness and rhythmic vigour that is truly musical. She has a remarkable control of dynamic range, so there was plenty of intimate quiet playing, and of rattling thunder, as required. Mehta, often leaning back over the rail of the podium to watch her next move, was with her all the way, cueing each tricky orchestral entry – can the conductor’s brain react more swiftly via the eye, rather than await neural processing through the ear? It would seem so. A final romantic touch from Mehta and Wang – the biggest ritardando of the night applied by all just before the final blaze – and one of the great performances of this concerto which gets so many performances, reached a brilliant close.

Yuja Wang and Zubin Mehta
© Reinis Oliņš

Whether it was the presence of Latvian TV, or the cheering audience, Wang gave three encores, versions of Gretchen am Spinnrade (Schubert/Liszt), Tea for Two, and Carmen Variations (via Horowitz). All familiar melodies clad in nearly as many dazzling pianistic fireworks, delivered with formidable accuracy, as the whole concerto had given us. In her equally dazzling white gown, and playing such pieces, reminds us that Wang is a great showman. But the abiding memory will be of the Rachmaninov, and her stature as a great musician.

After all that, and the thirty-minute interval favoured here, the Berlioz could have been a bit of a let down. If it did not quite match the concerto for impact, it was still an excellent performance of a showpiece work. The Israel Phil has a fine string section, who opened the work with alluring tone and phrasing, Mehta ensuring it kept flowing on to and through the first statement of the idée fixe. The conductor was the master of the volatility of this movement, pulling back then pushing on, but always within an implied pulse that kept it together. The second movement waltz danced and swayed, the harps glinting right through the texture – how many times have you seen an orchestral harp being played whilst hearing barely a note? The tricky Scène aux champs hung fire, as it sometimes does, despite nicely tangy woodwind playing. The three trombones and two tubas (sorry, no ophicleides in Latvia) roared mightily in the Marche au supplice and the finale was a nightmare – in the right sense for a Witches’ Sabbath. This was not though the most passionate interpretation of the work. Perhaps the 83-year old conductor no longer sees this as young man’s music, veering between the hotly impetuous and the dreamily moody, but more as a classical symphony with added colour. It certainly worked well on its own terms, and showed just how fruitful this very long (and soon to close) association between Mehta and his orchestra has been. As did the encore – Strauss’ Thunder and Lighting Polka.

Roy's press trip to Jūrmala was funded by the Riga Jurmala Music Festival