United Kingdom Various: Yuja Wang (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 20.4.2022. (CC)
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
Albéniz – Iberia: Book 4, Málaga; Book 3, Lavapiés
Kapustin – Jazz 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.