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The Witchcraft of Rachmaninovís Romanticized Masterpieces

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Tsim Sha Tsui
02/19/2009 -  and February 22*
Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 Ė Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Joyce Yang (piano)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (Artistic Director and Conductor)

Edo de Waart (© Hong Kong Philharmonic)

Rachmaninovís piano concertos are among HKPO and every orchestraís central repertoire. Regular Hong Kong concertgoers should be very familiar with his ever popular Piano Concerto No. 3, especially after the Oscar-winning film Shine. No matter it was the perfunctory Barry Douglas, stepping in Kirill Gerstein, or the award-winning Rashkovskiy, hardly a concert with this piece ended up without the audience giving stamping ovation. On Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon, rising Korean pianist Joyce Yang made no exception by delivering an electrifying reading of this magical score as her Hong Kong debut.

At the age of 23, Ms. Yang, the silver medal at the Twelfth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, has been enjoying a brilliant concert career in America. The orchestras she worked with include the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Center, the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival, and the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall under Lorin Maazel.

This Ďexperiencedí pianist, though youthful and girlish in appearance, walked onto the stage with overwhelming confidence and lovely smile. She opened the first movement main theme with charming lyricism and transparent tone. Tonal transparency, crystalline intonation, and finely polished articulation were her constant features throughout the whole concerto, but it was these features that cruelly relinquished the musicís paramount element Ė Rachmaninovís sorrowful Russian passion. Rarely a spark or fieriness that is found in most Russian pianists could be heard under Ms. Yangís fingers. Her over-punctilious and overcautious treatment towards this passionate masterpiece was also significantly exemplified by her studiedly even and steady pace, which somehow forfeited the coherent flowing of the extensive phrasal arc. Even though Ms. Yang carefully polished the long phrases with bewitching articulation, subtle dynamic control, and intellectual harmonic awareness, especially in the slow movement, her interpretation remained superficial and shallow instead of bringing the composerís musical thoughts and sentimental fervor to life. What this wealthy and lucky young pianist needs is Rachmaninovís deeply troubled life experience which can truly lead her to native understanding of the musicís profundity.

Technically, this Piano Concerto, generally regarded as one of the most demanding works amongst the entire piano repertoire, brings immense challenge to every soloist. Ms. Yang dispatched most technical hurdles with meticulous accuracy and scrupulous craftsmanship. The octave outbursts were delivered with arm-blurring velocity and those exacting finger tricks were rendered with dexterity and clarity. But there were still some occasions that Rachmaninovís rigorous technical demands made Ms. Yang stumbled. The Piu Mosso second theme from the third movement, one of the most difficult passages of the whole concerto, was flubbed with mishaps even though she played it strenuously. Besides Martha Argerich, who has a masculine character and virile physical strength, I can think of no female pianist dispatching this passage with precision and aplomb.

Notwithstanding, the pianist sitting on the stage was only a 23-year-old youngster pursuing her musical and virtuoso maturity. Her experience of playing with major orchestras and her rock-solid techniques provides a sturdy ground for her future development. What she really needs is a deep understanding of life and an honest but characterful style to make her an outstanding pianist amongst millions of piano players who have transcendental pianistic virtuosity.

The second half was Rachmaninovís another masterpiece Ė Symphony No.2 in E minor, composed 2 years before his Third Piano Concerto. Unlike his Symphony No. 1, which received a disastrous critic and public response at the time this symphony was composed, Rachmaninov was already enjoying his success brought by his Piano Concerto No. 2 and as a conductor in Moscow. He finished the work and conducted its premiere in 1908 to great triumph. It is tellingly exemplified in the exuberantly celebratory finale. Maestro Edo de Waartís account was very much aware of Rachmaninovís delectation by executing light-hearted articulation in strings and broadening climax in brass. But what de Waart overlooked was the composerís anguishes and torment in the previous movements. The suave string tone, raptly polished phrases somehow sacrificed the musicís true underneath passion.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Website

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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