Stunning Schubert and Scriabin from Yuja Wang

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Scriabin, Balakirev: Yuja Wang (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 1.12.2014. (HS)

Schubert/Liszt: Selections from Schwanengesang, Die Schöne Müllerin
Schubert: Sonata In A major, D.959
Scriabin: Prelude for the Left Hand, Op. 9 No. 1
Scriabin: Prelude, Op. 11 No. 8 in F sharp minor
Scriabin: Fantasie In B minor, Op. 28
Scriabin: Prelude, Op. 37 No. 1 in B flat minor
Scriabin: 2 Poèmes, Op. 63
Scriabin: Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 “Black Mass”
Balakirev: Islamey

The buzz at intermission was palpable. Yuja Wang’s preternaturally incisive, elegantly phrased performance of Schubert’s achingly wistful Sonata in A major, D.959 had sent slack-jawed pianophiles over the moon. But that was only the start of things. A second-half tour through a chronological series of preludes and fantasies by Scriabin culminated in a brightly illuminating performance of the composer’s Sonata No. 9 that, in a long single movement, breaks away from tonality on the composer’s own terms.

The stunner, however, came with the final piece on the two-hour program, one of the most technically challenging virtuoso piano works ever forged. With Islamey, a notorious finger-buster, the Russian composer Mily Balakirev set the difficulty bar so high (in 1869) that Ravel himself wrote that he intentionally created Gaspard de la nuit (49 years later) to be yet more difficult to play. With its extended passagework of rapid-fire parallel octaves in the right hand and roiling accompaniment in the left, Islamey takes a pianist of exceptional skill to execute all the notes, let alone bring out the cheerful Russian tunes buried within them. Fearlessly, Wang did exactly that, the standing ovation that followed as much for the sheer triumph of articulation as for the remarkable feat of making it all into real music.

The buildup to this climax started sweetly enough, with Liszt’s delicately etched arrangements of vocal songs from Schubert’s “Liebesbotschaft” and “Aufenthalt” from Schwanengesang and “Der Müller ind der Bach” from Die Schöne Mülerin. The full-scale Schubert sonata that followed, written in his final year as he battled life-threatening illnesses until he succumbed at the age of 31, reflects hardly any anguish. It is music of reflection, rather than drama. In some quarters it suffers in comparison to earlier masterpieces, not in Wang’s hands.

Her traversal of the sonata gleamed with a serene presence. The opening movement unfolded like the ruminations of a particularly eloquent, quiet-spoken old soul. In the magnificent Andante, with its melancholy little waltz tune interrupted briefly by a gradually intensifying fury, Wang created utterly seamless transitions that made it all seem of a piece. This was a reminder of her ability to use formidable technical command not only to dazzle us with flurries and cascades of notes, but to find just the right touch to add extra depth to a quiet phrase. The Scherzo and the Rondo finale whizzed by with good cheer, bringing the first half to an uplifting close.

The Scriabin sequence that followed intermission gained depth and harmonic complexity with each step forward. Wang chose pieces that traced the composer’s musical development. The opening work, the Prelude in F-sharp minor for the  Left Hand, a quiet ballad, was written when the composer had injured his own right hand practicing Islamey and Liszt’s Réminiscences of Don Juan. (It’s hard to say which to blame for the injury). Wang brought out the Chopin-like flair of the Prelude in F-sharp minor Op. 11 No. 8. The Fantasy in B minor, Op. 28, which builds to a big climax, drew applause (and a conciliatory bow) from the pianist.

The Prelude in B-flat minor, Op. 37 No. 1—one of 20 the composer wrote in 1903—broke off a full head of steam toward a similar climax, only to end quietly. Wang drew out the increasing harmonic complexity in this and the two Poèmes that followed, so that the final Scriabin sonata, which carries the sobriquet “Black Mass” for its deep dive into atonality, retained an attachment to the works that preceded it. In writing atonal music, Scriabin followed none of the rules of the Second Viennese School. No tone rows. No serialism. Instead, the Ninth simply roams freely into dissonances both subtle and raw-edged. Wang was utterly mesmerizing, corralling a squirrelly musical scatter into something coherent.

After the big storm of Islamey, she played two encores. The first was “Die Kontrabandiste,” a transcription by the pianist Carl Tausig from a collection of Spanish songs by Schumann. A favorite encore of Emil Gilels’, no doubt Wang chose it at least in part because, like Islamey, it makes connections between virtuoso passages and simpler sections in which a pianist can simply make the instrument sing. To calm everyone down, she finished with Chopin’s stately, elegant Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2, drawing sighs with her gossamer touch on the final notes of the recurring theme.

No report on a Yuja Wang appearance can be complete without comment on her clothing. Although the 28-year-old has endured criticism for her high-fashion dresses, she certainly has the presence and physical beauty to pull off the two gowns she donned here. For Schubert it was a clingy green number that fit tightly around her slim body and draped to the floor. For Scriabin and Balakirev she chose a long, flowing gown in primary blue, the side facing the audience split nearly to her hip. It’s saying something that she produced music even more stunning than the clothing.

Harvey Steiman

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