Los Angeles, the city in which Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) spent the last few months of his life, played host to an exceptional festival of music last February. As part of this year’s Rachmaninoff 150 celebrations, Yuja Wang joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel over two consecutive weekends to perform all four of the composer’s piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Deutsche Grammophon were there to capture their sold-out and critically acclaimed performances live at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Rachmaninoff: The Piano Concertos and Paganini Rhapsody is now set for release on 2 CDs, 3 LPs and digitally on 1 September 2023. The Allegro vivace finale of Piano Concerto No. 1 comes out as an e‑single and e‑video on 23 June; the filmed cycle of five performances will be premiered on STAGE+ on 24 June and will also be available on the LA Phil’s online concert series SOUND/STAGE later in September.
A formidably talented pianist himself, Rachmaninoff wrote a wide range of expressive, idiomatic music for his own instrument, including these five dazzling large-scale works for piano and orchestra. They have been part of Yuja Wang’s repertoire since the start of her career, and she continues to bring fresh insights to their kaleidoscopic riches. She has collaborated with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic many times, and a powerful sense of mutual respect and understanding is conveyed through these performances. As Dudamel notes, “We connect as if we were playing chamber music.”
Rachmaninoff began work on his First Piano Concerto in 1890, when he was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. Some 26 years later he substantially revised the work, and it is the 1917 version that opens this new album. The composer himself wrote at the time, “All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily.” Yuja Wang certainly makes the solo writing sound effortless, from the fiery flourishes of the first and third movements, to the intimate delicacy of the central Andante.
A huge success at its premiere in 1901, the Second Concerto remains one of the composer’s best-loved works. Its wealth of passion, virtuosity and glorious melodies are perhaps all the more remarkable given that the score emerged from the period of despondency Rachmaninoff experienced after the initial failure of his First Symphony. So familiar is the concerto that there is the risk of falling into well-worn grooves, but with not these performers. As the Los Angeles Times noted in its review, Yuja “attacked [the opening chords], making each one an ever-more-important event. She seemed to be saying, listen, this matters … [Along] with Dudamel, who was propulsive and extravagantly detailed in the accompaniments, [she] went … for the dynamism of our times.”
Soloist, orchestra and conductor also breathe fresh life into the Third, almost as well-known as its predecessor, and renowned for its technical and emotional demands, rhythmic complexity and intense melodic writing. Rachmaninoff wrote it in 1909 for his first tour of America and it proved to be the perfect showcase for his exceptional pianistic abilities. He conducted some performances himself from the keyboard, but when he played it with the New York Philharmonic he handed over that responsibility to no less a figure than Gustav Mahler.
The Fourth Piano Concerto was composed in 1926, by which time Rachmaninoff had left Russia and was living in New York. Influenced by the new trends of the day, it was not well received at first, and although the composer revised it before it was published two years later, he then withdrew it and only reissued it in 1941. With its hints of Gershwin, jazz and blues, its leaner, more focused style, and its more prominent role for the orchestra – all challenges ably met by the Los Angeles Philharmonic – the 1941 version can only make us wonder what Rachmaninoff might have written next.
The composer’s final work for piano and orchestra, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, was written in 1934, halfway between the first and final versions of Concerto No. 4. It takes the last of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin and transforms it in endlessly inventive ways. Yuja Wang reflects the work’s ever-changing moods, encompassing shimmering mystery, forceful energy, intense drama and magical lyricism, as she, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic produce an interpretation of enormous emotional sweep and scale.
Yuja Wang plays the Paganini Rhapsody with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg and Gustavo Gimeno this summer in Luxembourg, Wiesbaden (the Rheingau Festival), Amsterdam and Granada (1–3, 6 July). At the Verbier Festival, she performs the Third Piano Concerto on 14 July and the Cello Sonata and Trio élégiaque No. 1 on 19 July. Variation 24 of the Rhapsody will be released as a single to coincide with her performance of the work at the BBC Proms on 4 August, with two further singles to follow on 18 August and alongside the album release on 1 September.