“Everything the piano can do”

Recording these piano concertos by Rachmaninov came as a surprise and delight to Yuja Wang, and was a choice spurred on by Claudio Abbado: “I’d worked with him before, but not in these concertos. He plays with very few soloists these days, so it was a particular honour – I’d happily have played anything he wanted me to play.”

“I like really to grasp the flow of the Russian soul through Russian literature and understand the emotional ideals, and to touch on that during a live concert is quite difficult. In the Second Piano Concerto the big challenge is projecting myself: the writing is fairly transparent but the melody is overpowering, and cutting through the texture in order to be heard isn’t easy. It’s a challenge to bring out the harmonies, and the legatos are very special. At many points in this concerto, the piano is almost an accompaniment to the orchestra. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra were wonder­ful to work with: they listen to each other so well, and they’re all really young, about my age. I think the excitement of the live concert is truly present in the recording.”

The genesis of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is almost as legendary as the music itself. Severely depressed after his Symphony No. 1 had been panned at its premiere in 1897, the young Rachmaninov found himself unable to set pen to manuscript paper for two years. On the advice of his cousins, he consulted Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a specialist in neuropsychotherapy who used hypnosis to build up Rachmaninov’s confidence towards beginning a new concerto that would be “excellent”. The composer indeed emerged ready to set to work with renewed energy, sketching out the piece during visits to the Crimea and Italy in 1900; he gave the world premiere himself in Moscow on 9 November 1901. The piece’s immediate acclaim duly established him as one of the most exciting composers of his day.

Yuja Wang has drawn considerable inspiration from Rachmaninov’s own interpretation of the concerto, which is controlled and classical as others can be extrovert and passionate: “Instead of sounding very broad in what you might expect to be huge lyrical moments, his sound remains amazingly transparent,” she says.

By the time Rachmaninov began his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini his fame was universal, but his life had changed radically. In 1917 he and his wife fled the Russian Revolution, travelling first to Sweden and then to the USA. In Russia he had pursued a vocation primarily as a composer; in the West, though, the need for income propelled him into an international career as a concert pianist. His time for composition was consequently reduced, but the works he did produce showed increasing sophistication and originality and the Rhapsody is no exception.

It dates from 1934 when Rachmaninov was living in Switzerland, near Lake Lucerne. The theme is from No. 24 from Paganini’s Caprices for violin, a set of virtuoso variations so difficult that it contributed to Paganini’s being associated in the public imagination with the devil himself. Rachmaninov used the theme as the basis for a series of twenty-four variations plus introduction and coda, ingeniously combining the format with that of a three-movement concerto.

The first movement is the substantial, dizzyingly varied section from the start to Variation 15. First, only the barest outline is heard; Paganini’s theme comes into focus with the entry of the piano, which soon carries matters away into the fantastical skitterings of the first few variations. The “second subject” appears with the sixth, more reflective variation, and in the seventh Rachmaninov introduces the plainchant “Dies irae” – a reference that appears in many of his works almost as a signature motif.
After a concluding climax in Variation 15, the “slow movement” ensues, building through the expectant No. 16 and nocturnal perambulations of No. 17 to the work’s most celebrated transfor­mation of the Paganini melody in No. 18, progressing to a soaring grandeur on full orchestra. No. 19 plunges into a scherzo finale replete with wit, jazziness and a bedazzlement of virtuosity, though the “Dies irae” is never far away. Finally the music evaporates as if in a puff of smoke.

Yuja Wang is full of enthusiasm for this lithe and athletic work. “It’s my favourite of the Rachmaninov works for piano and orchestra,” she declares. “It’s a red-hot work – it suits young people my age because it’s so emotional. It’s very cleverly written and shows all the different sides of Rachmaninov. There’s so much variety in it, so many colours: I think that’s where his genius lies, in the invention of all these characteristics that explore everything the piano can do.”
Jessica Duchen