Music Director Designate Jaap van Zweden selected for these New York Philharmonic subscription concerts two masterpieces composed almost a century apart, both bristling with fresh ideas and examples of superb craftmanship, but certainly not spearheads of the avant-garde when they were conceived.

Jaap van Zweden © Hans ven der Woerd
Jaap van Zweden
© Hans ven der Woerd

The first evening of the series was such, that one could have had the impression of listening to two separate orchestras or at least witnessing the appearance of two different conductors. In Brahms’ First Piano Concerto, the ensemble, featuring a gathering of the crème de la crème of its instrumentalists, seemed pedestrian. The few rhythmic discrepancies between soloist and orchestra were not the point; neither were several shaky horn interventions. These issues can easily be ironed out for the next performances. What was really worrying was the fact that soloist and orchestra seemed to play different scores. One of the main features of this concerto is the equal partnership between soloist and orchestra. There was a very limited level of communication here, oddly, since Jaap Van Zweden and Yuja Wang are far from being at their first collaboration. The orchestra’s responses to the soloist’s dreamy pianissimos and roaring chords were simply bland.

It’s been a long time since Yuja Wang was considered a piano prodigy with outstanding technical skills, specializing mainly in Russian repertoire. On many an occasion she has proven to unbelievers that she can be a very sensitive musician, using her gifts as a means to explore the inner soul of the particular work she was interpreting. On Wednesday night, her performance was, as always, devoid of grandiloquent gestures. There was no milking of any phrase. She was fully focused on her music-making and the sincerity of her playing was without doubt.

Her version of Brahms’ D minor was one full of assuredness, leaving little room for suggesting the composer’s misgivings. Brahms wrote it as an homage to Schumann, an almost direct response to his mentor’s death. Wang’s approach was itself Schumannesque, with abrupt changes in mood, dynamics, the way she touched the keyboard. Schumann’s shadow was present mostly in the outer movements. The anxious and tragic streaks in the Adagio were less evident, totally explicable given the artist’s age and sunny nature. As opposed to other occasions (once she played, to the dismay of many listeners, two jazzy trifles after a stunning performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier), Wang offered here as encores two serious-minded Romantic gems – Op.67 no.2 from Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte and Brahms’ Intermezzo in C sharp minor, Op.117 no. 3 – proving again her gift for balancing sonorities, for color.

After intermission, the orchestra abruptly came alive, although there had been signs of awakening in the finale of the Brahms. Their rendition of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was glorious, emphasizing the composer’s talent for reinventing sonorities from within the confines of Classical forms and his wonderful gift for orchestration. In the first movement, a seemingly brisker than normal Andante, strings and woodwinds blended beautifully even if the dynamic range could have been a tad wider. All those splendid motifs that vie for attention, from the initial flute and bassoon one to the violins’ semiquaver chirpings, were nurtured with great care under van Zweden's baton. The toccata-like Allegro marcato was full of jazzy energy and satirical bite. The violins anchored the low-spirited Adagio well. Cellos, followed by clarinetist Anthony Mc-Gill displaying his characteristic rhythmic precision and poetic expressiveness, set the tone for the Allegro giocoso. The frenetic, obsessive, clockwork-toy percussion- and brass-laden last measures were hair-raising.