A Marvellous Recital from the Charismatic Yuja Wang

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev, Chopin, Kapustin, Stravinsky, Yuja Wang (piano). Barbican Hall, London, 16.2.2014 (CC)

Prokofiev:   Piano Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 28, “From Old Notebooks”
Chopin:        Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58.
Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48/1.
Ballade No. 3 in A flat, Op. 47
Kapustin:    Variations for Piano, Op. 41
Stravinsky: Three Pieces from Petrushka

Yuja Wang is certainly charismatic. Her decision to perform in micro-skirts and stilettos seems in direct contrast to the levels of artistic merit and sophistication she can bring to her playing. Perhaps she is courting controversy in her apparel, perhaps she wants to appeal to at least 50% of the audience no matter what. Whatever it is, if has helped her find herself and, in the same action, locate her interpretative maturity, then perhaps we should not be too critical.

 Still, Wang’s sparse clothing was not the only stimulating aspect of this concert. The choice of works was itself intriguing, right from the first piece, Prokofiev’s Third Sonata of 1917. The work’s subtitle refers to the use of material from Prokofiev’s youthful output. It is a remarkable piece, and Wang gave it her all. The frenetic opening suited her perfectly, and she honoured the nostalgia of the contrasts without pampering to indulgence. It was telling that more impressive than the poundings was her terrific light touch.

 Then came another Third Sonata, this time Chopin’s. There was to be more Chopin later, but this was the jewel. The bold colours of the first movement, the carefully considered, beautiful voicings and the perfectly judged projection of lines, not to mention the true awareness of the polyphonic basis of this composer’s music spoke of truly great Chopin playing. It should go without saying that with this pianist there would be no technical hurdles in the second movement Scherzo; the surprise came with the mercurial quality Wang was able to invoke the idea of a Mendelssohnian lightness viewed through Chopin’s eyes. Bizarrely, the opening of the great Lento invoked Mussorgsky. It was hewn in granite, before melting once more into beauty, The finale, a real test for pianists as the tension can so easily sag, was of a dark brilliance, a radiance shrouded in blackness. More impressive than the outbursts was the potential energy of the quieter passages. Stimulating playing of the highest order from first to last, the impact of which resonated right through the interval.

 The second half began with music by Nikolai Kapustin (born 1937: readers of Musicweb International might remember the Hyperion disc of his piano music). His Op. 41 Variations are an absolute jazz-inflected delight. Ingeniously, the piece is based on the bassoon theme from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; and of course Petrushka provided the final piece of Wang’s recital. It would be difficult to imagine a more idiomatic performance of the Kapustin.

 The Chopin that followed – the Op. 48/1 Nocturne – was much needed balm. But the Third Ballade was on a rather less exalted plane. Both the Sonata and the Nocturne implied that here is a pianist born to play Chopin; the Scherzo, though, felt rather unfocused, as if Wang had taken a step back. Perhaps she had something on her mind …

 The Petrushka pieces, perhaps? One of the toughest works in the repertoire, this is a terrific test for the pianist and it is one of Wang’s calling cards. The opening of the “Danse russe” positively buzzed, and Wang was able to project impeccable voicing even at speed and at a very high level of complexity. The ultra-gestural second piece was perfectly judged, while the finale held its share of surprises, not least the post-Debussian haze of its opening. The technique, again, was jaw-droppingly good, in fact in places improbable.

 Encores were inevitable, and Bolet-like in their number. A miraculous Chopin C sharp minor Waltz was the perhaps surprising jewel, given that it was surrounded by the likes of Prokofiev (Toccata: the hyperlink is worth clicking) and Bizet/Horowitz. There was even what I believe to be Art Tatum. Marvellous, and the standing ovation was fully deserved.

Colin Clarke