An Outstanding London Recital by Yuja Wang

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Scriabin and Prokofiev:  Yuja Wang (piano) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 1.5.2012 (RB)

Rachmaninov: Études-tableau, Op. 39 Nos. 6, 5 and 4
Élégie Op. 3, No. 1
: Sonata in E flat major Op 27 No 1
: Sonata No 5, Op. 53
: Sonata No 6 in A major, Op. 82

Yuja Wang is a former pupil of Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and her amazing technical abilities and recent recordings for Deutsche Grammophon have been causing a stir in the classical music world.  She is renowned as much for her dress sense and status as a fashion icon as for her superhuman technique and for last night’s concert she wore a different dress for each half of the recital. The programme played to her virtuoso strengths and was technically flawless throughout but I was pleased to see Wang including a middle period Beethoven sonata.

Rachmaninov wrote two sets of études-tableaux and the second Op 39 set were the last works he wrote before leaving Russia.  For the most part, Rachmaninov did not have specific scenarios in mind for these pieces although the A minor piece with which Wang opened her recital does represent the tale of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.  The growling opening was well executed and in the subsequent fleet-fingered passage work, Wang showed her consummate prowess as a virtuoso technician.  Wang deployed a nice variety of touch for the fourth étude-tableau and in the soulful Élégie which followed there was some nice shaping of the melodic line and a wide range of dynamic and tonal contrasts.  The fifth étude-tableau which concluded the Rachmaninov set is a big piece with dense textures, big chords and a wide range of orchestral sonorities.  Wang did a good job in capturing the grand epic sweep of the piece and in unleashing the grand passions.

The first of Beethoven’s Op 27 sonatas is much less famous than the ‘Moonlight’ sonata which is the second work from the same set.  Beethoven described both works as ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’ and flaunted tradition by departing from the usual sonata form in the first movement.  The first movement of the sonata in E flat is in ternary form with a light and rapid central section.  Wang achieved a pleasing sense of proportion in the opening section and the classical lines were elegantly shaped while the quicksilver central section was delightful and refreshing.  There was a superb range of articulation and dynamic control in the dark scherzo but I thought the trio lacked wit and some of the ornamentation could have been more finely executed.  The adagio slow movement was played with real tenderness with Wang conjuring a ravishing, warm tone from the piano while keeping the pulse steady.  The finale had ebullience and energy and Wang’s phrasing was immaculate but I was not convinced that she had really got beneath the skin of this particular movement.

Richter regarded Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata as the most difficult piece in the entire solo piano repertoire so it is a daunting prospect for any young pianist.  It is in one movement and uses highly experimental harmonies and piano figurations while being cast in a traditional sonata form.  Scriabin wrote the work immediately after the Poem of Ecstasy and included evocative lines of poetry at the head of the work.  Wang shifted seamlessly from the angular violence of the opening to perfumed decadence and then to the mania of the syncopated section.  The speed at which she played some sections of the work, and the degree of polish and finish that she achieved, were absolutely breath taking.  I was not entirely convinced that she captured the mystical other-worldliness of the piece (some of the harmonies were too clean) and the slow sections could have been more sultry and kinky.  The climactic coda, however, was played with devastating power and authority – a real tour de force.

Wang concluded her recital with the first of Prokofiev’s ‘War sonatas’ where the composer shatters romantic ideals with barbarism and ferocity.  Prokofiev takes us to the unyielding mechanised steel and shell fire of the battle ground in this work.  In the opening movement marked allegro moderato Wang was dry and precise and delineated the harmonies and textures very cleanly.  The central section had a silky richness of tone and the tempo remained very steady throughout.  I thought this movement lacked some of the ragged barbarism and primal violence for which Prokofiev calls although it was extremely well executed nonetheless.  The chords were nicely weighted in the second movement allegretto and Wang seemed to enjoy the mischievous humour and sense of parody.  The slow movement was played with a high degree of spontaneity and freedom – Wang obviously knows this score very well.  The finale is another horrendously difficult piece but it did not seem to pose any problems for Wang, who was clearly relishing the motoric figurations and rhythmic insistence of the work.

I was very pleased to see some members of the audience giving this outstanding young pianist a standing ovation at the end of the recital.  Wang dazzled the audience one last time by performing Horowitz’s über-virtuosic Carmen Variations as an encore.  An outstanding recital from a star performer of the future.

Robert Beattie