Often considered the pinnacle of Romantic pianism, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor brings to mind an image of the towering Russian virtuoso with great strength, stamina and the indomitable will required to see this massive work through from beginning to end. Diminutive, pert and youthful, Yuja Wang does not exactly conform to this image, but she has virtuosity in spades and stamina to spare. Her technically brilliant performance, with Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under French conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus, however, raised the question of whether it all wasn’t a little too easy.

Yuja Wang © Courtesy of Shuman Associates
Yuja Wang
© Courtesy of Shuman Associates

Wang played the familiar opening melody in a languid legato, expressing outward nonchalance laced with a dark undertone of anticipation. The passagework which ensued was less fluid and lacking in a certain lusciousness, possibly due to her spare use of pedal (though this aspect seemed to warm up as the performance continued). The first movement cadenza was wild and hair-raising, both in speed and general tonal intensity. Wang seemed in this moment to let go of control, in doing so highlighting the very best of her pianistic qualities. The second movement was melancholic and rhapsodic; orchestral crescendos pulled at the heartstrings and piano trills were impossibly smooth. The transition to the third movement brought a breath of fresh air, though the orchestra faltered somewhat in the opening rhythmic passages. As the music barreled forward I found myself wishing this pianist would exert more phrasing control, periodically slowing a passage down if only for expressive effect. One of the most powerful, interpretive actions a soloist can take is to put the brakes on from time to time, enacting a sense of will and engaging with the conductor, as opposed to “playing along” as if with a pre-recorded track. Casadesus is of an older school, conducting with generous vertical gestures, to which the orchestra seemed to respond willingly. He was attentive to the delicate shaping around Wang’s playing and in the gradual builds toward climaxes he showed himself a master of layering sounds and pacing.

Yuja Wang’s scales are not just fast; they are blindingly fast. Her finger work is not just proficient; it is superhuman. She sailed through octave and chordal passages that would stymie many great pianists with much bigger hands, always on, or on the front-end of the beat. Vladimir Horowitz himself is said to have off-handedly declared that the secret to virtuosity is “to play more notes in a shorter amount of time”. By this measure, Wang succeeded most admirably and is in every sense a virtuoso. But above and beyond technical fireworks and superhuman dexterity, Rachmaninov’s concerto demands that the pianist express through her playing both a sense of human struggle and an authoritative command of the entire orchestra in terms of pacing. If Yuja Wang does not struggle to play this repertoire, might she at least express the struggle inherent in the music? Technical facility may be desirable, but only if its enactment doesn’t come off as facile.

In Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony Casadesus again demonstrated a compelling ability to shape gradual builds over long stretches of music. His forbearance pays off, because the climactic moments are all the more powerful. The build up to, and through, the massive pedal-point that leads into the recapitulation of the first movement was a case in point, and a truly satisfying musical experience. The 5/4 waltz of the second movement was much more graceful than limping (or broken-backed, as it is sometimes called), while the rousing third movement elicited an enthusiastic ovation. From the painful first chord of the Adagio lamentoso finale through to the anticlimax soft ending, the fourth movement was tragic, poignant and haunting.