Maturity Will Come, But Fun is Here Now

United StatesUnited States Prokofiev, Chopin, Kapustin, Stravinsky: Yuja Wang (piano), Jordan Hall, Celebrity Series of Boston, Boston, 18.10.13 (DA)

Yuja Wang. Credit Robert Torres.
Yuja Wang. Credit Robert Torres.

Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No.3 in A Minor, Op.28
Chopin: Piano Sonata No.3 in B Minor, Op.58
Kapustin: Variations for Piano, Op.41
Chopin: Nocturne in C Minor, Op.48/1; Ballade No.3 in A Flat Major, Op.47
Stravinsky: Three Movements from Pétrouchka


This was the third recital in as many seasons that I have heard from Yuja Wang, and, aside from a Pétrouchka that left me stunned, it was the least convincing. A developing artist with scarcely believable technical ability, Wang is at her considerable best when she can push rhythmic instabilities to the fore at breakneck speeds. Cue Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and the spikier late-twentieth century works she frequently programmes. Yet in Chopin, as in more structurally dependent sonatas by Beethoven and Rachmaninov that I have heard from her before, her tendency towards dreamy aimlessness—dreams admittedly painted with colours unavailable to many of the greatest pianists—can obscure the larger processes involved.

Prokofiev’s brief third sonata suffered slightly from that, although the composer’s trick of deploying single themes instead of individual movements in a single span—like Berg—was largely to blame. Vibrant, quicksilver interplay and rhythmic risk predominated throughout. In hammering chords one recalled that it is not the power that Wang finds from her Steinway that is shocking (power at the keyboard is hardly correlated with physical strength), but the percussion of her most brutal tones. That, in turn, is balanced by a flickering lightness of touch and an explosive sense of phrase and development. If the Prokofiev was enjoyable but unmemorable, so too was Kapustin’s jazzy set of variations. Dazzling fingerwork enabled a bouncy swing that remained slightly predictable, but certainly enlivened a work that in less convincing hands would quickly outstay its welcome.

Not so with Pétrouchka. Usually this set of three pieces from the ballet receives either a starkly modernistic or a buzzily virtuosic treatment, but Wang’s signal achievement—in what ought to be a calling card for her—is to combine both. The ‘Russian Dance’ in her hands gains new clarity and outlandishness of collage, all with an incision to pulsing rhythms that has her dancing at the keyboard. ‘Pétrouchka’s Room’ is more of an interpretative challenge, and here Wang is able to keep the tension high—the puppet, after all, has both to threaten and sadden us. From here Stravinsky’s music exists in a constant state of transition, both of rhythm and of colour, and Wang possesses such imagination for both that the orchestration is left completely forgotten. She carries herself away with the ‘Shrovetide Fair,’ dazing with a febrile energy that exposes everything to danger. Every cross-rhythm is found, every dissonance has a point. Wang’s playing might mature, but it will never be more fun than this.

It will have to mature if her Chopin is to become more effective. The second half paired—or seemed to, before applause interrupted—a Nocturne with a Ballade, but if that was the intention the feverish abandon of the Nocturne had things peaking far too early. It left nothing unsaid, thrashing around at unnecessarily high volume and displaying a romanticism more apt for Rachmaninov than Chopin. In Chopin, and especially in the Ballades, it is difficult to strike the requisite balance between nobility and showiness, and this simply needed more subtlety, indeed to wear far less on its sleeve to be effective. The B minor sonata did not fare much better, sagging under the weight of its slower sections in the first and third movements, even if nuances of hue delighted. The second movement seemed merely a rehash of the finale of the B flat minor sonata in its outer sections, but was nicely poised in the middle. The finale began in a winning sotto voce, but quickly turned too interventionist for Chopin’s coruscating pile-on really to hit home, brilliant as the passagework was. Wang has such an ear for colours, and the fingers to achieve them, that it would be unreasonable not to use it. There were simply too many ideas here to make this Chopin coherent.

Two encores followed that exceptional Stravinsky: a paraphrase on Art Tatum’s ‘Tea for Two,’ and a rambunctious performance of the Bizet-Horowitz ‘Carmen’ Variations so quick that the piano’s mechanism could barely keep up.

David Allen