Yuja Wang’s Pianism Inspires a Sense of Wonder

07/06/2018

Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Ligeti, Prokofiev: Yuja Wang (piano), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 5.6.2018. (AS)

Yuja Wang (c) Ian Douglas

Rachmaninov – Prelude in G minor, Op.23 No.5; Études tableaux – C minor, Op.39 No.1; C minor, Op.33 No.3; B minor, Op.39 No.4; Prelude in B minor, Op.32 No.10; Études tableaux – E flat minor, Op.33 No.5; E flat minor, Op.39 No.5
Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.10, Op.70
Ligeti – Études – No.3; No.9; No.1
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No.8 in B flat, Op.84

Encores:

MendelssohnLieder ohne Worte, Book 6, Op.67 – No.2 in F sharp minor
Prokofiev -Toccata in D minor, Op.11
RachmaninovVocalise
Bizet (arr. Horowitz)Carmen Fantasy
Schubert (trans. Liszt)Gretchen am Spinnrade
Chopin – Waltz No.7 in C sharp minor, Op.64 No.2
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No.7 in B flat, Op.83 – 3, Precipitato

It was surprising to find that the usual intelligentsia of the keyboard and well-known critics who attend celebrity piano recitals were largely absent from this event. Perhaps there is a perception still that Yuja Wang, with her somewhat daring style of platform dress and general flamboyant appeal is just another shallow whizz-kid from China. Indeed, until recently two of my friends regarded her reputation to be largely based on non-musical factors. But not any longer. Yuja Wang is in fact a deeply serious artist with extraordinary gifts, and no more needs to be said about her dress sense. All right, then, if you really insist – for the first half she wore a long and elegant green gown, low cut at the back, and for the second she sported a very short yellow number. Both of these were accompanied by her trademark platform shoes with very high heels.

If her appearance at the beginning of the evening was not enough to draw our attention she then proceeded to present a calling card in the shape of the popular Rachmaninov Prelude in G minor that all music lovers know. Possessing as it did highly-charged, buoyant rhythms, wonderful variations of tone colour, supremely elegant phrasing, easy but breathtaking virtuosity and tremendous flair, this was Yuja Wang telling everybody of her qualities at once in a seemingly deliberate fashion.

The Rachmaninov selection that followed contained for the most part lesser-known pieces, and as will be seen above, the sequence was devised so that we heard three groups of two pieces which were linked by a common key. It was an effectively varied group, delivered with great skill and personality, but in a way that was true to the composer’s vision. Indeed, there were echoes of Rachmaninov’s own style of performance as preserved in his many recordings.

Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata, in which the composer continues his late explorations of keyboard expression and the outer reaches of tonality, made an effective contrast with the romanticism of his fellow Russian composer. Yuja Wang penetrated its mysterious world with great sensitivity and the shoals of keyboard sound in the second movement were brilliantly conveyed.

Ligeti’s Études seem to have struck a chord with more than one prominent pianist recently, and the three on offer here explained why this is so. Though each is quite short, there is plenty of time for the composer to investigate all manner of rhythmic devices, tone clusters and sometimes a perpetuum mobile of fast fingerwork that creates a peculiarly shimmering quality of sound, all wonderfully conveyed here by the pianist.

The recital’s second half comprised Prokofiev’s Eighth Piano Sonata, in which Yuja Wang responded sharply to the passages of steely brilliance in the first movement with a bright, ringing tone quality and gave gentle care to its more reflective sequences. A sensitive rendering of the curiously old-fashioned minuet-like middle movement gave way to the motoric drive of the finale, with its high energy but intriguing diversions into slightly more introspective fare. This was a perfect vehicle for Yuja’s brand of thoughtful virtuosity.

It was certainly a short second half, but wait, we then had a mini-concert of seven encores, sufficient to be listed above. As if the pianist had not already shown her qualities, we now experienced a rapturously shaped piano arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, a most delicately wrought Chopin Waltz and lots of virtuoso fun in Vladimir Horowitz’s take on Bizet’s Carmen.

Finally, the cheering audience let Yuja Wang go, and one was left with a sense of wonder at the pianistic power, stamina and explosive energy of the slightly built young lady who had just left us.

Alan Sanders  

For more about Yuja Wang click here.

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