New Classical Tracks: The Spirit of Rachmaninoff

by Julie Amacher
April 25, 2011

Listen New Classical Tracks for April 20, 2011 Listen Yuja Wang Interview - New Classical Tracks, April 27, 2011

The Washington Post has described 23-year-old Yuja Wang as "a pianist of rare gifts." Claudio Abbado agrees. After seeing this young Chinese pianist play Franz Liszt's sonata on French television, he compares her to the Argentine master Martha Argerich. That's why he hand-selected her to play Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto at the 2009 Lucerne Festival. Abbado plays with very few soloists, so Yuja Wang says it was quite an honor, "I was very flattered," she recalls, "they always have Pollini or Brendel, you know, those amazing masters. I was really shocked. I was like, Are you sure?"

On her first orchestral recording, featuring Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Yuja Wang joins Abbado and the young musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Yuja Wang says this is a very special recording, "I've never done Rachmaninoff with Claudio, so I was really eager to do that with him. I know he did the same thing 20 years ago with Cecile Licad. I think we have a very similar view of Rachmaninoff which is not too kitsch. It's beautiful--but very tasteful, just like the composer himself does it. So we're really agreeing on that. We hardly talked. We just played and it was right there." Wang admits it's nerve-wracking to play under Abbado, whom she calls "a man of mystery" because he rarely says anything. He just smiles. "The whole thing about Claudio is listening to each other, about silence," she explains, "For me, it was more like playing chamber music, rather than a huge orchestra with soloist. So it was a fun time!"

What's most challenging about Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2,according to Yuja, is cutting through the orchestral texture so the piano can be heard. Her job is to bring out the harmonies, and the legato passages are very important to her. There's one point where the piano is almost accompaniment to the orchestra. "I feel like the orchestra is basically the sea and I'm just surfing the waves. So I'm not leading them, I'm just part of them."

Yuja looked to Rachmaninoff's own recordings for inspiration in her interpretation of the Piano Concerto No. 2, "I think he's the height of the art of playing piano," she confesses. Everything was just so high-quality, in terms of sound, phrasing, clarity, pedaling, the way he plays everything, the structure. Everything you can think of is perfection, and of course there's the original charms of momentary inspiration in there as well--you can hear it."

So what is her favorite part of Rachmaninoff's second concerto? "The beginning cello melody that I'm not part of," she laughs. She says it really sets the mood for her, "I'm supposed to set the mood for them but when they come in, I'm like, oh yeah, that's it! I love the second movement in the second concerto. There's that spot in the middle, in b minor. I'm singing with the woodwinds, and it's really, really touching. I love that part."

Rachmaninoff was universally famous by the time he wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The theme is the last of of Paganini's 24 Caprices for violin, a set of virtuoso variations so difficult it fueled rumors that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil to be able to play it. Rachmaninoff used the theme to create his own variations plus an introduction and coda, ingeniously shaping them into, in effect, a three-movement concerto. Yuja Wang loves this red-hot, emotional work because it shows so much variety and so many sides of the composer. Plus she really loves the youthful energy the Mahler Chamber Orchestra brings to the piece. "This is a piece that has lots of witty places in it. The reason I loved it so much is because it's just so clever."

Yuja Wang has an apartment in New York City, but she says she's rarely home. She will be there in October when she gives her debut recital in Carnegie Hall. In the meantime she'll be quite busy, touring the globe with stops at the Hollywood Bowl, the BBC Proms, and a tour of her homeland, China. She's also just commissioned a new work from composer Mason Bates which she'll premiere in June. It's tough to find practice time when she's on the road so much, but she says that's not the hardest part, "I rarely feel grounded anywhere because I'm in different places every day," she explains. "The only thing that stays the same are the pieces and the music."

Yuja Wang is certainly grounded in Rachmaninoff. She loves his music, and the great Russian pianists like Horowitz, Richter, and Kissin. She chuckles about the Russian hat she's wearing on the cover of this CD, noting she still looks very Chinese--but this young Chinese pianist has a very Russian soul.

To hear Julie Amacher's full interview with Yuja Wang, click the audio link below the above left picture.