Prom 35: Oslo Philharmonic/Mäkelä review – breathtaking Yuja Wang reveals new depths to Liszt

The centrepiece of Klaus Mäkelä’s extraordinary Prom with the Oslo Philharmonic was a performance of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto with Yuja Wang as soloist: a breathtaking account of the work, virtuosic on every level, both pianistic and orchestral. Since its first performance in 1855 it has been fashionable to decry the piece as overly flamboyant, though Wang and Mäkelä revealed just how much depth there is to it, and what an impact it can make when taken seriously and properly handled.

Wang’s formidable technique and remarkable dynamic control allowed her both to hurl the opening flourishes out with terrific force and produce exquisite pianissimos in the adagio, which is sometimes described as an operatic aria without words and structured round one of Liszt’s most beautiful melodies. The scherzo was filigree-light, the martial finale propulsively energetic without a trace of pomposity. Finding an underlying unity in disparity, Mäkelä made perfect sense of the score’s stylistic veering between almost Wagnerian weight and an airy brilliance that derives from the French music of the time. It was all something of a revelation, even to those like myself who are fond of the work.

Wang capped it with two encores: Horowitz’s bravura Carmen Variations, flung out with devil-may-care panache and glamour, and, at the opposite extreme, a transcription of the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orphée, marvellous in its poetic introspection.

It was flanked by two of the great tone-poems: Sibelius’s Tapiola and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Gaunt, bleak and an unsetting piece with which to start, Sibelius’s evocation of the vast Finnish forests was eerie and disquieting, its organic development and patterns of stasis and movement, tension and release, all superbly controlled. Mäkelä doesn’t linger over Strauss, and his Heldenleben was swift and unsentimental, by turns exalted and, in its closing pages, extremely touching. In both works the playing was superb in its commitment, panache and detail. At the end of an evening in which virtuosity as well as exceptional musicianship were paramount, the orchestra gave us the csárdás from Johann Strauss’s Ritter Pásmán as the most exhilarating encore imaginable. Stunning, all of it.