Review: Yuja Wang Is a Force of Nature, Whirling Into Carnegie Hall
By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, May 21, 2018
Yuja Wang, whose career began in 2007 as a last-minute replacement for Martha Argerich with the Boston Symphony, and in 2017 was named Musical America‘s Artist of the Year, has been announced as Carnegie Hall’s “Perspectives” artist for the 2018-19 season. In a hurry to the top of the pianistic food chain, she plays, well, like she’s in a hurry.
Tonight, with audience members seated around the piano onstage, her perfunctory, harried bow portends much about how she plays. Like an Olympic figure-skater aiming to jump higher and spin faster, style and substance are part of the presentation, but not always the focus of the event.
Wang began her ambitious program of largely Russian music with a custom-blended set of Rachmaninoff Preludes and Études-tableaux. Diving out of the gate with a driving Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5, emphasizing the prelude’s inner counter melodies, carefully incorporating Rachmaninoff’s plentiful dynamic markings, Wang highlights Rachmaninoff’s coloristic, moody effects. The coda, marked “leggiero” was thrown away with winking abandon — something she does a lot.
Wang continues with the Étude-tableau in C Minor, Op. 39 No. 1, making it a wash of sound, lacking any of the crispness and angularity to be found in this music. She does excel at bringing out inner lines, but generally at the sacrifice of clarity in the outer textures.
Op. 33, No 3, a journey from C minor to major, fares far better, its glorious melody rising above the flowing accompaniment beautifully.
The Étude-tableau in B Minor, Op. 39 No. 4 is awash again. Moments of repose carefully noted, but the music so easily becomes swept in the gush. An especially heartfelt Prelude in B minor, Op. 32 No. 10 begins wistfully and grows to two deeply drawn climaxes, and here we are able to appreciate her mastery of the piano’s sonic possibilities, her sustain pedal never losing in its sight the farthest perspective in Rachmaninoff’s sound picture.
The E-flat Minor pair of Études-tableaux that followed were characterized by the same qualities, a shower of sound with little rhythmic definition, but soaring, sincerely shaped melodies when Rachmaninoff leaves the pianist with only lyricism, not showiness, to rely upon.
Wang’s predilection for bringing out buried melody and relegating outer textures to extemporaneousness works much better in the obscure, interpretively challenging tenth sonata of Alexander Scriabin. Occasionally referred to as the “Insect” or “Trill” sonata, this early modernist Russian composer’s last piano sonata is comprised of a single movement that seems inspired by the sounds of nature (and, we might infer, a symbolist’s view of human emotions), making liberal use of trills and tremolos. While written at the same time as Rachmaninoff’s Études-tableaux, it seems more akin to Stravinsky’s similarly radical The Rite of Spring. Scriabin explores a wholly new approach to harmony, with chords of no traditional tonal function, just blazes of color, bursts of pianistic ecstasy. Wang played this with a good sense of the piece’s architecture and emotional sweep.
György Ligeti’s forbidding piano etudes would certainly be on the short list for the most difficult pieces in the literature, but Yang dispatches three of this Hungarian avant-garde composer’s 1980s exercises to mind-numbing effect. With her score on electronic tablet (using a Bluetooth pedal to “turn” the pages), unfazed by the near impossibility of Ligeti’s physical demands, Wang rips through Etude No. 3, “Touches bloqueés.” Ligeti calls for it to be “vivacissimo,” as fast as possible, and I would wager that Wang beats the competition in terms of what is possible (especially in a treacherous passage in octaves, which she tosses off with unfathomable ease). In the ninth etude, “Vertige,” a fiery torrent of chromatic scales, and then the first, “Désordre,” Wang whips the air in the room into a tornado.
Following intermission, and a fashionable change of gown, she gave a highly imaginative, romantic account of Sergei Prokofiev’s eighth piano sonata, the last, and least frequently played, of his three “war sonatas.” It’s a big, wonderful piece, embodying all of the best qualities of Prokofiev’s music: poetic lyricism, just enough sentimentality, witty irony and visceral force. The lengthy, melancholic, first movement begins meditatively, and Wang infuses her legato phrases with yearning. The movement then becomes increasingly agitated and profound, but Wang plows through some of the more intricate passages along the way, overlooking the detail in how Prokofiev orchestrates for the piano.
Wang’s reading of the sonata’s second movement, “Andante sognato,” a minuet which finds Prokofiev in his nostalgic, Neo-classical mode, is by contrast, romantic. She gives into the sentimentality here, finding a mannered kind of expression in this movement often played with a balder sense of irony. Unsurprisingly, she dives into the “Vivace” finale with an emphasis on thrust and velocity, bringing the program to a ferocious close.
The audience jumps to their feet with just as much velocity, but now we learn what Wang’s hurry might have been for. She lets her real personality fly in a series of no fewer than six dazzling encores. From light fare like Horowitz’s showy Carmen variations and a delightful “Tea for Two,” Art Tatum-style, to an emotionally committed account of Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” to the fastest blast-through of the “Precipitato” finale of Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata I’ve ever heard, Wang surely has an album of encores in her wheelhouse. Next season’s Perspectives programs will provide New York audiences with even more insight into what she can do — fasten your seatbelts.
Yuja Wang in recital at Carnegie Hall on May 17, 2018.
Cover: Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall; photo: Fadi Kheir.