, February 2011
Taken from the sixteenth Verbier Festival, this is a remarkable homage to the evergreen genius of Mendelssohn—with the bonus of a stunning version of the Stravinsky Petrushka pieces.
The disc begins with the least known piece, the Op. 110 Piano Sextet. Wang looks rather uncomfortable as she comes on stage, and even initiates the bow before one of the viola players is fully in place. All musicians seem to settle immediately down to the matter at hand, though. The scoring of the sextet is for piano, violin, two violas, cello and double-bass. Anthony Short’s booklet notes point, correctly, to the influence of Weber here, particularly perhaps in the sparkling piano writing. Certainly Wang is beautifully attuned to Mendelssohn’s idiom, and the counterpoint that informs the score is beautifully realised by all players. Mendelssohn’s scoring is rich, even tending towards the Brahmsian on occasion. The wonderfully interior Adagio is as delicate as silk, while the relatively extended finale (8:57) has a sort of addictive energy which is most involving. Certainly the audience thought so—whoops of joy after the final chord.
The camera angles are sometimes deliberately close, and a favourite one seems to be to show Wang through the gap between string players—they are arranged in front of her onstage. Certainly one can see plenty of eye contact between the string players—less so between Wang and her colleagues, but perhaps she wasn’t in shot when it happened. Also David Carpenter finds it difficult to keep a smile off his face, and he keeps raising his eyebrows to other players. Wang restricts her witticisms to her fingers; no flirting there. Her every phrase is a delight, and she sounds so off-the-cuff that it comes as a surprise to watch her read the music so closely.
There is no other Mendelssohn Op. 110 on DVD, it would appear, and this performance is a fine one.
Wang’s hair is decidedly wilder in style for the piano concerto—a seemingly meaningless comment from this reviewer, perhaps, except to say that it matches her playing. Her sound is perhaps, a little too shallow for the big choral moments, but the semiquaver fluency is remarkable, and her diamond articulation fuels further joy. Masur moulds the violas and cellos in the slow movement to mesmeric effect—their sound is marvellously rich. Wang is able to match their eloquence; the experience throughout is magical. The finale is magnificently sprightly. Perhaps Wang is a touch too dry in the opening flourishes, and a touch more wit would be welcome on occasion from her. Still, this is a noteworthy performance that loses little to the classic (non-visual) accounts of Perahia, Thibaudet and Ogdon. Masur’s contribution is all one would expect from this ex-conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with all its links to Mendelssohn.
Masur’s reading of the “Scottish” symphony is no less impressive. He conveys the majesty of the work in tempi which unfailingly are absolutely right. A special word is in order for the principal clarinettist, whose solos are uniformly musical, creamily toned and full of character. The Scherzo reveals virtuoso playing from just about the whole band, while the Adagio’s phrases seem literally to breathe—one can follow the music’s inhalations and exhalations. The finale oozes energy.
The bonus is the Stravinsky Petrushka pieces. Having heard Wang play this live in London, it is interesting to hear her live in Verbier in what is rapidly becoming her signature work. The dark lighting, complemented by her fire-red dress, sets the atmosphere perfectly for the fireworks. Yet, for all the keyboard virtuosity, Wang never forgets that there is the spirit of the dance at the heart of Petrushka. Her linear acuity seems even more heightened than Pollini (DG) in the first piece (the “Russian Dance”), and without his emotional distancing. The quietly buzzing atmosphere of the Shrovetide Fair is superbly done, as is the later pianistic frenzy, an orgy of counterpoint that, even as one hears it, seems improbable. The final chords approaching the glissando here take on a Mussorgskian element, something that doesn’t even strike the listener with the likes of Pollini or Kissin. The cheers and standing ovation for Wang are the natural consequence of her playing. Wang’s Petrushka pieces are available in an audio performance on her “Transformations” album (DG 4778795)—this forms a valuable appendix.