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Romantic Peaks in Montreal

Maison symphonique de Montréal, Place des Arts
04/23/2014 -  & April 26*, 27, 2014
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique,” Op. 74

Yuja Wang (Piano)
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Jean-Claude Casadesus (Conductor)

Y. Wang (© Ian Douglas)

The first time I heard Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique live I burst into tears. Mind you, I was an impressionable 22-year old, and Leopold Stokowski was conducting. All the more bitter, then, the deception of Saturday night’s performance, the fault of which was entirely that of French conductor Jean-Claude Casadesus. The first two movements were a disgrace. There was little empathy between the orchestra and Casadesus, who resembled a stickman flailing about alone in front of a mirror. It was as if he were fighting against the orchestra. The opening, which features the solo bassoon, began too fast and too loud; the strings, especially the double basses, had no bite; the trombones sounded ragged and overly aggressive; and there was no pulse, let alone sensitivity and color, to the music. Casadesus gave scant attention to dynamics in the 5/4 meter second movement, “broken-backed, limping yet elegant”, let alone shaping and phrasing. Matters improved marginally in the third and fourth movements. Despite the lack of tension, the third movement’s noisy, hair-raising climax elicited applause from most of the audience. The pathos of the fourth movement became palpable only in the second half, where the strings came into their own again after seemingly having been in hibernation since the first movement of the preceding Rachmaninoff concerto. Oddly, the horns, unlike in the Rachmaninoff concerto, could scarcely be heard.

Yuja Wang made her long-awaited Montreal debut with three performances of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It was well worth the wait. Saturday evening’s performance of this highly complex and challenging work was masterful. Wang has all the qualities of a great pianist—solid technique, assurance without bravado, rich tone and the ability to bring out the inner voices of the notes. She is truly one with her instrument. The first movement was notable for the seamless blend with the strings and horns, her agility in the fast passages, the clarity of the big chords and her respect for dynamics. The flute and horn solos were exemplary. Wang effortlessly evoked the poignancy of the second movement’s main theme over the rippling left-hand arpeggios with grace and finesse. The horns never sounded better. The exuberant finale suffered some muddiness from the orchestra but the tremendous climax was almost heart-stopping. The performance could only have been better had Casadesus been able to maintain a tight pulse throughout the work: in the event, the performance felt somewhat episodic rather than all of a piece.

A note to fashionistas: Wang, known for her sexy attire, wore a tight, floor-length black gown slit to the thigh. Although she had trouble walking, in no way did the sartorial choice impede her performance. On the contrary, her shyness and insouciance belied the image she or her advisors are attempting to create.

The defining characteristic of 19th century Romantic music is expressiveness. Apart from some sections of the Rachmaninoff concerto, this attribute was sadly lacking from Saturday’s performances of these two Romantic pinnacles.

Earl Arthur Love



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