New York Philharmonic/Maazel Joyce Yang

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Joyce Yang (piano)

New York Philharmonic
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 25 November, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City

Back in New York, fresh from a twelve-performance tour to California, Japan and Korea, Lorin Maazel led the New York Philharmonic and pianist Joyce Yang in a programme of music by Rachmaninov and Beethoven. This was the second of three performances, with the final one to be given on Tuesday, 28 November.

The concert began with Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, performed by Joyce Yang, the young Korean-born pianist who won the silver medal at the Twelfth Van Cliburn Competition in June 2005 at age 19. A student at The Juilliard School since moving to the United States in 1997, Yang has appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony and the National Symphony Orchestra, and she performed the Rachmaninov Rhapsody with the New York Philharmonic in Seoul and Daejeon, Korea during the orchestra’s just-concluded tour.

Yang made a sensational impression, skilfully negotiating the Rhapsody’s technical intricacies whilst staying attuned to the work’s shifting moods. She stated the theme – drawn from Paganini’s twenty-fourth Caprice (for solo violin) – with percussive precision, and then developed and embellished it in a series of Variations in which the orchestra ably joined, including well-played solos for oboe and bassoon. Then, with the aid of the double basses and to the accompaniment of galloping figures on the strings, Yang emphatically brought out the power of the ‘Dies Irae’ theme, and in the Eleventh Variation gave a brisk treatment to the cadenza that bridged to the most romantic portion of the Rhapsody.

The climactic section of the work is, of course, the Eighteenth Variation – an inversion of the principal theme, played Andante cantabile in a harmonically distant major key – which never fails to enthral. Yang’s expressive phrasing captured the romantic lyricism of this famous solo passage, and then provided counterpoint as Maazel, all but leaping from the podium, demonstratively led the orchestra’s lush playing of the inverted theme. The remaining Variations impelled the work toward its conclusion, revisiting the ‘Dies Irae’ along the way. At times Maazel allowed the brass and percussion to overbalance the rest of the ensemble, but at least at the end of the work this proved effective as a contrast to the piano’s quiet final phrase.

Following the interval, Maazel led a performance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony that was rather eccentric, particularly in his choice of tempos and extensive use of rubato. The opening movement proceeded at a tempo appropriate to its heroic grandeur, but it was abbreviated by Maazel’s decision not to observe the repeat of the exposition. The glacial pace of the funeral march that followed more than made up for the lost time, however, clocking in at over seventeen minutes. The third movement scherzo and trio were taken at slow, but still fairly conventional, tempos, but the finale was distinctly unconventional, with tempos varying so widely as to destroy any overall sense of coherence while running to nearly fourteen minutes – significantly slower than the more usual eleven or twelve.

Much, but not all, of the added time was in the ‘poco andante’ section, which was taken at what seemed like two-thirds speed, disrupting the music’s momentum and exaggerating the contrast with the concluding presto. The overall performance-time of more than fifty-two minutes – with the first movement repeat omitted – falls well outside current performance norms. (By way of comparison, the recent recording of the Eroica by Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra is less than forty-nine minutes – including over three minutes for the first-movement repeat.)

Quarrels with Maazel’s tempos aside, the orchestra’s playing was excellent. The horns were particularly outstanding in the opening movement, at the dramatic climax of the funeral march, and, in the trio, providing a delightful contrast to the scherzo. The woodwinds were outstanding in rendering the first movement’s second subject and the intriguing theme that appears surprisingly in the midst of that movement’s development section, as well as in solo passages throughout the symphony. Maazel brought the timpani and trumpets to the fore when appropriate, but without creating an imbalance with the rest of the orchestra. The strings played well, but were more effective in some places than others. On the positive side, the fugato passage in the first movement was excellent, and the double basses added a sense of gravity to the funeral march – although this was unduly exaggerated by the slow tempo. One effect that did not work well was Maazel’s overemphasis of the second violins’ running figures early in the first movement’s development section.

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