United Kingdom J.S. Bach, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Liszt: Joyce Yang (piano). Presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco, 30.11.2021. (HS)
J.S. Bach – French Suite No.5 in G major
Rachmaninoff – Ten Preludes Op.23
Tchaikovsky – Barcarolle in G minor (from The Seasons)
Liszt – Piano Sonata in B minor
Joyce Yang might not be on many observers’ top-pianist list, but she knows her way around some of the instrument’s tougher assignments, as she demonstrated in a generous recital Tuesday night in Herbst Hall. Perhaps she doesn’t dazzle with piano pyrotechnics, but she can execute dense, challenging phrases and draw liquid legatos when the piano needs to sing.
Yang also knows how to connect with an audience. Before offering Rachmaninoff’s first book of preludes, she admitted in a winsome introduction that she had learned all 24 of the composer’s finger-busting preludes while staying at home during the pandemic, and she was unveiling ten of them for the first time.
She then proceeded to find a trove of nuances in the series of short pieces: no big surprise since her 2010 debut with the San Francisco Symphony delivered a stunning Rachmaninoff Concerto No.3. Yang clearly has an affinity for the Russian composer’s broad, extroverted musical language.
Best was the Prelude No.3 in D minor, investing the left-hand triplets with energy to balance the somber mood. In the famous No.5 in G minor with its Russian-dance tread, she brought a lovely glow to the dreamy central section. The perpetual motion exercise of No.7 in C minor underlay a beautiful rendering of the legato melody above it. She found a similar balance, in reverse, for the last prelude, No.10 in G-flat major, as the expressive melody in the left hand emerged clearly against the busy texture, the piece ending with a sigh.
Yang began with Bach’s French Suite No.5 in G major, the one with the famous Gavotte. She applied a bit too much pedal for my taste, and if she let the rhythms ebb and flow more than a collection of dances might want, the swirls of the penultimate Loure were executed with hazy flair. The fugue-like Gigue finished things off with equal panache.
The second half of the program opened by connecting Tchaikovsky’s elegiac Barcarolle in G minor from The Seasons, a collection of charming miniatures, with Liszt’s roiling emotional roller coaster, the Sonata in B minor. Yang told the audience that she liked to follow the quiet bell-like chords at the end of Tchaikovsky’s piece with the soft thumps in the piano’s low register that begin the Liszt.
That was a nice moment. Indeed, Yang’s finesse with the less flashy moments of the sonata paid the biggest dividends, as the louder passages with their big, crashing chords often felt heavy rather than majestic. The rewards of this performance stemmed from her understanding of the music’s shape, intentions and necessary contrasts. She made the piano sing when needed and exude power when called for.
For an encore, she calmed everything down with a lovely rendering of Edvard Grieg’s Notturno No.4.