The most popular piano concertos of the 20th century have never been short of outstanding interpreters, and the recorded history of Rachmaninov’s four concertos, together with the even more successful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, is a hugely distinguished one. From the composer’s own recordings in the 1930s, to Daniil Trifonov’s cycle, completed in 2019, there’s no shortage of excellent complete surveys, as well as dazzling performances of individual concertos, such as Sviatoslav Richter’s account of the Second, Vladimir Horowitz or Martha Argerich’s performances of the Third, or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s unsurpassed version of the Fourth.
So Yuja Wang faces some fierce competition in her survey of the five works, which is taken from concerts in Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Hall last February. It followed a series of performances of the concertos that Wang had given in North America, including an extraordinary marathon in New York’s Carnegie Hall, in which she played all five works in a single day with Yannick Nezet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra. These performances with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were spread more sensibly across a fortnight, with one concerto in each concert.
Wang has recorded three of the works before – the second concerto and the Rhapsody with Claudio Abbado, and the Third with Dudamel, in 2011 and 2013 respectively. But however dazzling those performances are technically, she is a much more mature performer nowadays. While the flashy exuberance of the First Concerto and its quicksilver changes of mood suit both her and the slick reactions of Dudamel and his orchestra down to the ground, she equally teases out the lyricism of the Andante with great sensitivity. The famous opening chords of the Second are presented in a way that seems to prepare for a great drama, not just romantic indulgence, yet the slow movement seems a little brisk and prosaic. Other pianists find more depth there, though few dispatch the finale with quite the elan that Wang commands.
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The performance of the third concerto, the most complex and ambiguous of the four, is also the hardest to pin down; the opening theme lacks the sense of mystery and inwardness that some bring to it, though against that the tracery of the second theme is beautifully shaped, just as the slow movement is full of exquisite detail. For all its energy, too, the Fourth is a little uneven, the rapport between orchestra and soloist not as convincing as elsewhere, while the Rhapsody glitters as it should, even if Wang does milk the music’s lyrical moments a bit too much, particularly in the famous 18th variation. But perhaps no single pianist’s view of these works will ever be consistently convincing; picking and choosing between different interpreters for each concerto is still the way to go.