There were two lessons to be (re)learned listening to Haydn’s Symphony no. 31 in D major at the start of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra’s Enescu Festival programme. Firstly, Haydn’s shadow truly hovers over almost everything composed after him in Western music, the ludic thread that seemed to run through the performance being just an example. Secondly, the level of cohesiveness of the ensemble – whose members do not play together very often – was amazing. Just glancing at their leader, Matthew Truscott, and at each other, the musicians were able to maintain a sonic balance that could have easily been dominated by the four horns employed in the score. Several solo moments – cello, violin, flute, double bass – in the Finale (a theme with seven variations) were all very well incorporated into the overall soundscape, as were the earlier violin and cello ones in the second movement.

Matthew Truscott leads the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Andrei Gîndac

The other piece performed without a designated soloist was Stravinsky’s three-part Octet for Wind Instruments. The score is considered to mark (together with his opera Mavra) the beginning of the neo-classical phase in the composer’s oeuvre. As rendered here, the Octet was a live demonstration that Stravinsky’s output is more unified than we like to accept. Not only was the third movement anchored in the same folkloric source as Stravinsky’s “revolutionary” early ballet scores, but the rendition of the first movement sonata form underlined the “I-can-do-this-too” satirical spirit clearly perceivable in the composer’s approach. Between Mozartian shadows, a Valse and a can-can, or a last variation totally unconventional in its structure, all the details of the Andantino were carefully brought forward by the group of virtuoso wind-players.

Yuja Wang and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Andrei Gîndac

Many music lovers around the world have been excited by news of Yuja Wang taking up directing. She gave mixed indications in Bucharest. Wang was billed in the programme notes just as pianist, but her name was placed above Truscott’s, credited as “concertmaster and leader”. For Janáček, the piano was placed perpendicular to the stage, surrounded by the wind players. She used just a few conducting gestures – mostly nodded – at the beginning and end, even if one of her hands was totally free. For Shostakovich’s concerto, her Steinway was placed in a regular position and she was kept busy with her own glorious playing.

Janáček’s Capriccio has a similarly eccentric combination of instrumental timbres as Stravinsky’s Octet. The syncopations evoke spoken language with their unexpected turns of a phrase, and the mixture of sadness, irony and hope were all beautifully rendered. Yuja Wang marvellously switched from virtuosic passages to subtle textures. Her dialogues with the tuba and the trombones had a particular charm.

Yuja Wang and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Andrei Gîndac

She was fully back to her ebullient self during the rendition of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, while also playing the melancholic Andante with great delicacy. The integration of piano and orchestra worked – both rhythmically and dynamically – as well here as it did in Janáček, with various hints from Baroque fugues to Soviet-era marches illuminated without any over-emphasis.

Yuja Wang added two encores that she has often played before: a Mélodie arranged by Sgambati from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice and Nikolai Kapustin’s Toccatina, part of his Eight Concert Studies for Piano, Op. 40. Composed two centuries apart, and both extremely different, they represent the type of work where “you are putting out a lot of emotion”. However, one is still looking forward to the day when this phenomenal interpreter will devote less time to compositions with “exciting elements” and more to those “philosophical and psychological pieces (that) need to undergo a long-term thought process” (to quote the pianist herself).

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