Yuja Wang’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker

16 May 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Paavo Järvi

Yuja Wang

  • Robert Schumann
    Ouvertüre, Scherzo und Finale, op. 52 (18 min.)

  • Sergei Prokofiev
    Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in G minor, op. 16 (35 min.)

    Yuja Wang Piano

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
    Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K 331 (300i): 3. Alla Turca (arr. by Fazıl Say / Arcadi Volodos) (4 min.)

    Yuja Wang Piano

  • Dmitri Shostakovich
    Symphony No. 1 in F minor, op. 10 (40 min.)

  • free

    Yuja Wang in conversation with Andreas Ottensamer (16 min.)

Her mother wanted to make a dancer out of her. But Yuja Wang knew that only one part of her could dance: her fingers. The Chinese pianist’s fingers fly over the piano keys with breath-taking speed. In May 2013, Yuja Wang proved in her debut recital with the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation that – besides stupendous technique – she also has an extraordinary feeling for tonal nuance. She performs here with the Philharmoniker as a soloist for the first time – with Sergei Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, in which virtuoso brilliance is combined with musical depth.

Paavo Järvi conducts this concert. It’s not by chance that he programmed the First Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich: the work, which the 19-year old composer wrote for his finals at the conservatory, shows Prokofiev as role model. All the same, the symphony’s mixture of defiant jocularity and great pathos already bears Shostakovich’s unmistakable signature. The work earned him his first triumphant success. With it, Shostakovich – as Nikolai Malko, the conductor of the premiere stated – began a new chapter in the history of the symphony. Schumann also intended to try out new symphonic forms in his orchestral piece Overture, Scherzo and Finale. He conceived the piece as an alternative design to the “flattened overture style” that, much to Schumann’s disapproval, was highly popular with the general public at the time.

Romantic – Scythian – Headstrong

Compositions by Schumann, Prokofiev and Shostakovich

One should really speak of it as “Leipzig Romanticism”, because Romantic music was born in that Saxon city. It was there, between 1834 and 1847, that Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann revolutionized musical life. In Leipzig the “historical concert” originated with revivals of earlier masterpieces, the Romantic programme symphony was born, the first German conservatory founded, and the “New German School” baptized. Richard Wagner could be said to have grown up in the shadow of Mendelssohn and Schumann, even if he later denied it; Liszt and Berlioz were frequent guests at the Gewandhaus; and from 1850 the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik under Schumann’s successor Franz Brendel became the central organ of Wagnerianism.

Experiment on the new path: Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale

Schumann’s artistic career follows a concealed plan of which he himself was probably not fully cognizant. In 1834 he is an “editor” and critic, though not one of the “right” group of musicians. He socializes with Leipzig’s bohemians at the old Coffe Baum and invents his imaginary Romantic circle of Davidsbündler. By 1839 he has created the great piano cycles (Carnaval, Kinderszenen, Papillons, Novelletten etc.); 1840 is the year of song, with 150 lieder; 1841, a year of symphonies. If you want to establish yourself as a musician in Leipzig, you must play or be played at the Gewandhaus. The First Symphony in B flat – the “Spring” – was written in the incredibly short span of four to five weeks and was premiered with great success under Mendelssohn on 31 March. Schumann immediately began work on a “symphoniette”, also writing a fantasy for piano and orchestra – which later became the opening movement of the A minor Piano Concerto – and a further symphony in D minor, which was extensively revised in 1851 to become his Fourth. In December 1841 at the Gewandhaus, the “symphoniette”, now titled Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and the original version of the D minor Symphony were given their first performances.

The Overture, Scherzo and Finale represents an experiment on a new path. The Overture presents two “eloquent” figures in its slow introduction: a melancholy, entreating idea on the violins and a biting answer from the low strings. The two figures argue with one another in the Allegro section rather like Eusebius and Florestan in Schumann’s articles. It seems as though the topic of the dispute is the great Mozart: Schumann’s main theme bears a fleeting resemblance to that of the Symphony No. 40 in G minor. The quarrel ends in three dissonant chords and – after a sudden fermata – a high-spirited march: an unclassical, “Romantic” turn.

In the Finale Schumann tries something rather similar, though the details are different. A theme is exposed and then turned into a boisterous fugue. It breaks off midway and unexpectedly gives way to a melody that could have come from one of the composer’s Eichendorff songs. This is followed by several bars of a springy march into which the woodwind in 3rds introduce a more melodic downward scale – not thematic working-out but a song medley, finally capped by a blaring hymn.

These two movements flank a peculiar Scherzo, a rushing, restless ostinato with a shadowy Trio – ghostly music, seeming to come from beyond. It forms a vanishing “black hole”, engulfed by the exuberant high spirits of the outer movements. Seen thus, the “symphoniette” is also a kind of novelette in the spirit of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Nachtstücke (Night Pieces), revealing the darker side of Schumann’s nature.

In “stile barbaro”: Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto

In 1913 European music was rocked by two scandals. Hoots and jeers greeted the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps on 29 May in Paris, and, unexpectedly, this tumult was echoed half a year later in St. Petersburg when Sergei Prokofiev introduced his Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. He played like a “tiger” wrote the Petersburgskaya Gazeta, asserting that “cats can make better music than this”. It was no coincidence. Prokofiev was clearly out to outstrip his decade-older colleague, and both composers rejected the derivative classicism of their teachers and were seeking new paths. They found it in Scythian antiquity, which was more or less an invention of literature, carrying a similar emotional charge as the term “Germanic” for a pre-Christian culture. Both the Sacre and Prokofiev’s piano concerto were expressions of that “Scythian” trend, and both composers remained faithful to this early paradigm through all the changes in their personal styles.

Prokofiev was an outstanding pianist and wrote his Second Piano Concerto with his own virtuosity in mind. It ranks as one of the 20th century’s most technically taxing but also most effective compositions for the instrument. Its form is unusual. Instead of the classical three movements, it is in four, beginning with an extended Andantino that merges into an Allegretto section. The movement is dominated by an enormous solo cadenza of unprecedented brilliance, making the highest demands on the soloist and offering a glimpse of Prokofiev’s own qualities as a player. It is followed by a racing, almost somersaulting scherzo (Vivace) and a doleful intermezzo in “stile barbaro” with 7th and 9th progressions in the basses and an archaic melodic roughness. The stormy finale (Allegro tempestoso) begins and ends with an orchestral bombshell, but its middle section sounds a mellower tone.

A stroke of genius: Shostakovich’s First Symphony

Barely 20 years old, Dmitri Shostakovich became famous overnight when his First Symphony was premiered on 12 May 1926 in Leningrad, conducted by Nikolai Malko. A year later it was given by Bruno Walter in Berlin, followed by Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer and other leading conductors. Composers Darius Milhaud and Alban Berg expressed their enthusiasm. All now were acquainted with the new genius emerging from those years of deprivation in Leningrad.

Yet the symphony is anything but a lament, although it has its tragic moments. A trumpet motive introduces the first movement – not a military signal but rather an elegiac melody counterpointed by the bassoon. The clarinet adds another theme, whose slinky syncopated chromaticism recalls the jazz style of the 1920s. And then a third theme appears, a waltz melody contrasting with the two other marchlike passages. These elements are taken up and intensified in the development section until, after a fermata, the opening motto returns and the movement concludes pianissimo.

The following scherzo acquires its grotesque character largely from the virtuosically deployed orchestral piano. Its most striking appearance consists of three A minor chords in the extreme registers that break off the raucous proceedings, leading again to a pianissimo ending. The third movement features a broad-spanning plaintive oboe melody, which is consequently underlaid by a funeral march in the middle section. This movement, too, ends quietly, with a high string chord above a timpani roll. The finale begins without a break, not a light-hearted rondo but dramatic music consisting of several themes juxtaposed like a mosaic which develop an impressive intensity. Shortly before the end, Shostakovich inserts an inspired cello solo before crowning the movement and the symphony with a defiantly protesting Presto.

Gerhard Müller

Translation: Richard Evidon

Paavo Järvi was born in Tallinn and studied percussion and conducting at the conservatory in his home town. In 1980 he emigrated to the USA and completed his studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and – with Leonard Bernstein – at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute. After positions as principal guest conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi was chief conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 2001 to 2011, where he still has ties as “Music Director Laureate”. In 2004, he took over the artistic direction of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and from 2006 to 2013 he has also been chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. He became music director of the Orchestre de Paris at the start of the 2010/2011 season. The NHK Symphony Orchestra has appointed him their new chief conductor from 2015. The Estonian, who has been honoured with numerous awards, including the prestigious “Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Ministry of Culture and the Order of the White Star by the President of Estonia, is also a welcome guest at renowned orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Russian National Orchestra, the Vienna and Munich Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The artist is particularly interested in the music of Estonian composers such as Arvo Pärt, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Lepo Sumera and Eduard Tubin. Paavo Järvi’s artistic work is documented in many recordings, several of which have won awards. He gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in February 2000 and last conducted the orchestra in a series of three concerts in April 2013, with works by Beethoven, Hindemith and Sibelius.

With her stupendous virtuosity, Yuja Wang has become an internationally sought-after pianist within only a few years. Born in Beijing in 1987, her piano training began when she was six years of age. She studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in her home town, then went as a 14 year-old to Mount Royal College in Calgary, Canada, and one year later studied under Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where she received her concert diploma in 2008. The young pianist has already performed with many of the worldʼs most prestigious orchestras: in the United States, her appearances include with orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington. In Europe, Yuja Wang has appeared with the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Filarmonica della Scala, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam. With these orchestras, she has worked with many world-famous conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Gustavo Dudamel, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Antonio Pappano, Yuri Temirkanov and Michael Tilson-Thomas. Yuja Wang has given solo recitals in the major cities of Asia, Europe and North America and can be heard regularly at such summer festivals as Aspen, Gilmore and Verbier. She received the Gilmore Young Artist Award in 2006, and the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2010. The artist made her first appearance in Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation concerts in a recital in the Chamber Music Hall in May 2013.

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