Having been to Shanghai for the first time in my life in October 2018, I was particularly interested in hearing the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra at the Proms, conducted by Long Yu. The city itself has an awe-inspiring feeling of speed, innovation on modernity – almost of living in the future. And, having coached many Chinese students myself, their reputation for technical perfection is formidable. But music is more than just technical perfection and I was intrigued to see how they would interpret a work as dramatic and musically challenging as Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.

Eric Lu © Janice Carissa

The first half included Qigang Chen’s ‘Five Elements’ and Mozart’s Concerto No. 23 with pianist Eric Lu. ‘Five Elements’ or (Wu Xing in Chinese) represents the elements of earth, fire, metal, water and wood and in Chinese philosophy they are the main pillars of Feng Shui. Feng Shui is considered by many Chinese people to be one of the most fundamental elements of life, with the perfect balance between all five elements necessary to feel happy and fulfilled. On the sol-fege scale (do – d, re – d, mi – e, fa – f, sol – g la – a, ti – b), fire is sol – g, wood is mi – e, water is la – a, metal is re – d and earth is do – c.

Radio France commissioned this work in 1998 and Chen said at the time, “The challenge pleased me and I took it up as a style exercise, supported by the pressure of the duration and making it a rule for new pressures to me. Such was the original idea which led me to write five pieces of two minutes each. Before to go further in my process, I undertook to characterise each piece by one different symbol. From there was born the idea of representing the 5 elements (Wu Xing). … To characterise musically a symbol in an extremely short time and to present a tangible material in an abstract language were my lines of strength. But even more, to establish relationships between the materials, so that each element generated the next one as if the last was the consequence of the first.”

The ‘Five Elements’ presented a delightful and refreshing start of the programme, with a tapestry of shifting colours and a sound world quite unlike anything that followed. The Mozart concerto that followed afterwards was delicate and impeccably played by the young pianist Eric Lu, recent winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition. Playing Mozart is always difficult – very few notes must be played with the utmost expression. At the age of just 21, Eric is certainly one of the most interesting up-and-coming artists of the new generation and he showed beautiful touch and elegant style, if perhaps lacking a little sparkle.

The Symphonic Dances followed after the interval. They are the only substantial work for orchestra that Rachmaninov composed in the US after leaving Russia. Struggling to find time and inspiration for composing, and in need of funds to support his family, Rachmaninov toured as a pianist and conductor almost non-stop throughout the US and Europe. But in 1940 he wrote to his friend Eugene Ormandy, the chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra: “Last week I finished a new symphonic piece, which I naturally want to give first to you and your orchestra. It is called Fantastic Dances. I shall now begin the orchestration.” He later changed the title of the work, with the dances becoming “symphonic” rather than “fantastic”. Rachmaninov also abandoned the idea of naming the movements as “midday, twilight, and midnight”: “It should have been called just Dances,” he mentioned in one interview “but I was afraid people would think I had written dance music for jazz orchestra.”

The performance by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra was executed with technical brilliance but somehow missing the critical element of interpretation that would have taken us to the heart of what Rachmaninov was trying to say.

Yuja Wang © Norbert Kniat

Yuja Wang’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no.3 in Prom no.63 presented a very different experience. Beijing born, now residing in the UK, Yuja brought more than just the jaw-dropping technical perfection she is famous for, bewitching the Royal Albert Hall with an extremely personal and touching interpretation of this masterpiece. While the ‘traditional’ Russian interpretation of this work is very different, I admired her ability to speak to the heart with a very feminine touch in a concerto that is somehow very masculine in style. Yuja Wang was accompanied beautifully by the Staatskapelle Dresden, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. Their subsequent interpretation of Brahms Symphony no.2 got to the heart of what the composer was trying to say. For me, a performance like this will always win over a more technically perfect, but also more soulless interpretation.

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano concerto, one of his most enigmatic and sophisticated works, presents a real musical and technical challenge for the performer and is considered on the the most demanding concertos ever written. Composed in 1909, the concerto was dedicated to Joseph Hofmann who unfortunately never performed the work. It was firstly performed in November 1909 by Rachmaninov as a soloist under Walter Damrosch conducting. However, it’s the second performance, under Mahler that Rachmaninov treasured most, recalling: ‘At that time Mahler was the only conductor whom I considered worthy to be classed with Nikish (prominent Russian Conductor at that time – YC). He devoted himself to the concerto until the accompaniment, which is rather complicated, had been practiced to perfection, although he had already gone through another long rehearsal. According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important — an attitude too rare amongst conductors. … Though the rehearsal was scheduled to end at 12:30, we played and played, far beyond this hour, and when Mahler announced that the first movement would be rehearsed again, I expected some protest or scene from the musicians, but I did not notice a single sign of annoyance. The orchestra played the first movement with a keen or perhaps even closer appreciation than the previous time’.

The absolute pinnacle of any pianist’s interpretation of this piece belonged to the Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz, according to Rachmaninov.