Yuja Wang has nowhere to hide in Beethoven but has phenomenal technique in the showpieces

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Yuja Wang (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 20.4.2022. (CC)

Yuja Wang (c) Deutsche Grammophon

Beethoven – Piano Sonata No.18 in E flat, Op.31/3
Schoenberg – Suite, Op.25
Ligeti – Etudes: No.6 (‘Automne à Varsovie’); No.13 (‘L’escalier du diable’)
Scriabin – Piano Sonata No.3 in F sharp minor, Op.23
AlbénizIberia: Book 4, Málaga; Book 3, Lavapiés
KapustinJazz Preludes, Op.53 Nos. 11 & 10

Yuja Wang dedicated her recital to the memory of Radu Lupu: she has studied with him and made her North American debut replacing him in Ottawa in the 2005/6 season. Musically, the two pianists are poles apart: Lupu the interior poet, Wang the wizard of prestidigitation. Interesting that Wang’s programme included Beethoven, a composer she is not naturally linked with; equally strange was the A4 printout ‘programme’ apparently due to last minute decisions (although what we got was what had been previously advertised, I believe).

Wang-mania was clear to see from the near-capacity audience, demanding no fewer than ten encores. And the Wang tropes were there too: the change of outfit in the interval, the slightly awkward, quick bow, the phenomenal technique in the showpieces.

But with the addition of Beethoven, we had the potential to see a new side of Wang. One thing was clear: Beethoven leaves nowhere to hide. for all of her flair in Rachmaninov. Liszt and so on, it was Beethoven that was the mountain Wang finds hard to climb. The mystery of the opening gesture was entirely absent, harmonic progressions felt cold, unappreciated. There was some interest in Wang’s intent to place the sonata close to Haydn in her articulation, but the gruff humour was nowhere to be heard. The fast tempo for the Scherzo was unsurprising (actually the movement is marked Allegretto vivace, not that the audience was given any movement information on the freesheet), but it still felt a way from Beethoven. Repeated notes simply were rather than holding any dynamic energy or even meaning, while there was superfluous rubato for the Menuetto (Moderato e grazioso) with more mangled phrases than added eloquence. A lullaby trio was mildly effective before a swiftly-despatched finale returned to the distanced world of the first movement.

Interesting to have the Schoenberg Suite, Op.25 next. A six-movement piece with each movement after the initial Prelude taking the title of a Baroque dance, the work itself is a triumph. Written between 1921 and 1923, this is the first of Schoenberg’s truly dodecaphonic pieces; inserting this within the frame of Baroque forms is inspired on the composer’s part. Wang’s performance interestingly once more missed the significance of repeated notes, and how in Schoenberg in particular they generate energy. Again, they went for nothing. The ‘Musette’ third movement danced somewhat, while the tick-tock of the Intermezzo held some charm. Interesting to compare this with Chisato Taniguchi’s performance in the finals of the Orléans Piano Competition this year: Taniguchi’s level of understanding is streets ahead of Wang’s (the performance is available on YouTube, although it was even more gripping experienced live).

Two Ligeti Etudes concluded the first half. Wang has recorded several of these, and she certainly shows greater resonance with them: yet even here the descending lines of ‘Automne à Varsovie’ (Autumn in Warsaw) went for little. There was excitement aplenty in the upward scales of ‘L’escalier du diable’ (The Devil’s Staircase), but I remain unconvinced that Wang had full understanding of the more chordal sections. The interpreter without equal in this repertoire remains Pierre-Laurent Aimard, but there is space for others; just, perhaps, not Wang.

The second half brought us closer to Wang’s core repertoire. Scriabin’s Third Sonata, like the Beethoven in the first half, has a four-movement structure. Certainly, the core of strength in the first movement implied better things, as did the greater understanding of gesture than we found in the Beethoven. Perhaps a touch more abandon to the second movement’s volcanic surges would have helped, but the sweet sound Wang found for the third movement Andante was certainly balm to the ears. Interestingly the descending scalic gestures in this sonata balanced the upward ones of the Ligeti ‘staircase’ Etude, a nice touch of programming.

Interesting to hear Wang in two movements from Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia: from Book 4, ‘Málaga’, music she clearly has resonance with, her crisp articulation certainly aided the music forward, and possibly for the first time in the evening it was possible to get caught into the actual atmosphere of the piece. From the third book was ‘Lavapiés’, a complex piece texturally and harmonically, named after a district of Madrid, and again Wang projected the core of the piece well. Nice to see some Nikolai Kapustin there, too, two Jazz Etudes from the set of 24 that comprises his Op.53. The bluesy No.11 with which she concluded the advertised programme is a particularly effective piece and catapulted us through to that huge tranche of encores. Some were expected: the Prokofiev Toccata and the Gluck/Sgambati Mélodie d’Orféo, more exciting in repertoire terms was actually the first, Philip Glass’s Etude No.6, perhaps in keeping with more contemporary aspects of Wang’s programme, and nicely delivered.

Colin Clarke

3 thoughts on “Yuja Wang has nowhere to hide in Beethoven but has phenomenal technique in the showpieces”

  1. Dear Sir,
    I apologise for my poor English. I am a francophone. I did not hear the London recital, but I attended the Paris recital two days later, and it was pretty much the same concert. Moreover, I might as well tell you straight away that I am a writer, and the author of a book inspired by Yuja Wang, « Chinese Piano ». The Philharmonie de Paris, where she played on 22 April, did me the honour of quoting me in its presentation of the concert.

    This means that I am an admirer of Yuja Wang, and therefore not objective (but who is?). For the past fifteen years I have been trying to correct what I believe to be a recurring error among many critics (and I have been stating this error in my book, if I may say so): that of believing that, in the face of Radu Lupu, an « interior poet », Yuja Wang is the opposite, a « wizard of prestidigitation ». Of course she is a magician, but she is also a poet, and a profound one. It’s just that listeners are obsessed with her technique and don’t realise that behind this technique there is a hard-working, sensitive, cultured musician (who read Goethe’s Faust before playing Liszt’s Sonata), humble before the scores, humble before her elders (she sought the advice of Radu Lupu as well as Nelson Freire, and both of them had admiration for her, by the way).

    As for Beethoven, who you seem to think is new to her and difficult to climb, are you forgetting that she not only played (and sometimes conducted) his concertos, but also gave the most masterful performance of his most Himalayan sonata, the Hammerklavier, and therefore has no need to find in Beethoven a place to hide? (I have published on my Youtube channel, with the score, the performance she gave in Verbier of this sonata, which you can find here, if you are interested: https://youtu.be/E17EsNWanzQ

    Her Opus 31 was admirably Beethovenian in the harshness of its contrasts, in its violence that surprises us at the bend of its softness. As for her Schoenberg, it was rich in extraordinary vitality, making this music capable of bewitching the public, even though it remains, exactly one hundred years after its creation, the most difficult music for the listener. And it’s quite astounding that you doubt Yuja Wang’s ‘level of understanding’ of this music. The same for Ligeti. I breathe when I read that you find her Albéniz beautiful, and her Scriabin!
    In fact, Yuja Wang, despite (or precisely because of) her immense fame, suffers from the same misunderstanding as Horowitz or Cziffra a few decades ago: because their technique was fabulous, they were very often denied musicality. For Yuja Wang, there is one more thing: contrary to what you seem to think, she finds the right tone for all composers, she is at ease in all repertoires. Listen to her Brahms concertos, listen to her Scarlatti! Listen also, on my channel, if you have time, to her Bach Toccata BWV 911: https://youtu.be/sBTSAbyAAi8
    Despite a very defective sound (it was an amateur recording, just before the Covid interrupted the concerts), what a life she gives to this work, what clarity and what accuracy! But also what poetry!

    I’ll stop. If I have succeeded in making you revise, or at least nuance your judgement, I will not have wasted my time. Please accept, dear Sir, my best wishes, and my apologies for this too long message. Etienne Barilier

  2. Mr. Etienne Barilier has been a reliable and eloquent admirer of Ms. Wang for many years. He lets the artist’s skills shine in the most beautiful formulations and opposes the sweeping judgement that Ms Wang’s art is grossly misunderstood by music critics. They ‘don’t realise that behind this technique there is a hard-working, sensitive, cultured musician (who read Goethe’s Faust before playing Liszt’s Sonata).’ He then rises to a truly hymn-like judgement: ‘As for Beethoven, who you seem to think is new to her and difficult to climb, are you forgetting that she not only played (and sometimes conducted) his concertos, but also gave the most masterful performance of his most Himalayan Sonata, the Hammerklavier, and therefore has no need to find in Beethoven a place to hide?’

    This line of argument raises questions: The fact that a young musician is supposed to have read (and understood?) Goethe’s drama Faust (Part I and Part II?) says nothing about the level of her education and that she is cultured. I have doubts about that. Apart from the 2016 video recording of Op.106 from Verbier cited by E.B., there is one from Carnegie Hall on YouTube. We see a young woman, dressed in a slit dress of completely transparent fabric, who, before playing, exposes her right leg from ankle to hip. And that’s sophisticated? If her performance of the Hammerklavier Sonata is so unique, why does she employ nudity and sexiness? For years, Wang has presented herself in concerts and recitals as a barely veiled, half-naked beauty in outfits, one uglier than the other. And this is supposed to be an expression of her modesty and sophistication? Or is it a way of keeping the male audience dreaming so that they don’t notice that Wang’s performance is not as flawless as her body?

    • Mr. Montauk, Your comments regarding Ms. Wang’s appearance and body are misogynistic and highly inappropriate in any form. Your comments achieve only to delegitimise any plausible critique you may have had about Ms. Wang’s astounding talent or performance. Your words not only reveal your jealousy but prove that it is you, Mr. Montauk, and not Ms. Wang who lacks any modicum of ‘culture, sophistication’ or decency.

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