Bocheng Wang delivers a fearsome Agosti Firebird in a fine Wigmore Hall recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky (arr. Agosti): Bocheng Wang (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 14.6.2023. (MBr)

Bocheng Wang

J. S. Bach – Italian Concerto in F. BWV 971
Rachmaninoff – Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42
Stravinsky (arr. Guido Agosti) – Three movements from The Firebird Suite

Bocheng Wang, born in Lanzhou, China, in 1997 but currently studying for his Advanced Diploma at the Royal Academy of Music in London, is clearly a virtuoso pianist of the first order if this lunchtime recital at Wigmore Hall was anything to by. Three works were on the program – by Bach, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky/Agosti ­– all of them played at his RAM recital in May this year, with the one exception of the Rachmaninoff/Arcadi Volodos transcription of the Andante from the G minor Cello Sonata which was missing.

Bocheng Wang does, I think, like to take a risk. As ambitious as this program was it was one that was not without traps, and I am not sure he didn’t fall into a few of them. Bach’s Italian Concerto in F, for example, is by no means the most obvious choice of his works for a solo recital; likewise, the Guido Agosti arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite is considerably more than the taxing difficulty of the piano part.

The Italian Concerto was written for the harpsichord – specifically the two-manual kind of instrument. Bach created contrast in this Italian model by applying the forte and piano manuals; for the pianist it is rather more complicated to get anything similar from the standard keyboard so to do this he needs to alter the dynamic balance and tonal colour. This did, in fact, work well for Bocheng Wang in the Andante, which was extraordinarily beautifully done (and perhaps slightly slower than marked). The left-hand in the bass was rich, and there were touches of Rococo florets in the right-hand that curled ornately through the soaring melody around it. Less sure-footed to me were the two outer movements. The opening Allegro seemed a little impatient, rhythms a bit too springy, and a lack of harmony between the right-hand and the left-hand meant the narrative and its surrounding music didn’t always lock together. The Presto, as so often with performances of this work, drew me back to the Bacchic fury in the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh: how far do you press forward and how far do you reign it all in? Bocheng Wang chose to enjoy every moment of Bach’s crisp, brilliant keyboard writing, and it was often dazzling. Perhaps, however, it galloped towards the gate just a little too fast; some of Bach’s melody was left trailing in the dust, the rest in a hazy mist.

Rachmaninoff never recorded his Variations on a Theme of Corelli; indeed, in a letter to Nikolai Medtner in 1931 he wrote: ‘I have played the Variations about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t even play my own compositions!’ The Variations were the last major work he wrote for solo piano (apart from revising the Piano Sonata No.2 the same year) and they look forward to the 1934 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, rather than back to the Chopin Variations of 1902/3. Unlike the earlier variations, the ones he based on Corelli (or, not Corelli since it was from an old Portuguese dance tune known as La Folie) the later ones are considerably more diverse.

Rachmaninoff’s supposed difficulty with this piece might have something to do with what Earl Wild described as its ‘gnarly’ complexity. Wang was, I think, best in the work’s more virtuosic music; the opening four variations, for example, all slower in tempo, had felt laboured, albeit labouring that was most beautifully toned. But the grippingly done arpeggios of the Allegro and L’istesso tempo (No.5 and No.6) were hugely impressive. The Intermezzo was delivered as a dreamy cadenza of high-powered virtuosity – stamping D-flat major on this performance like a sledgehammer. It proved something of a turning point in this recital – the ‘majestic’ key, as Berlioz once described it – allowing Bocheng Wang to assert a dominance over the return of D minor when it reappeared to launch into some of his most ferocious playing so far. The remaining variations were high voltage, No.19 almost like the inside of Dante’s Inferno with its simmering fire; No.18’s octaves had been rhetorically powerful. The crescendo to No.20 had been Olympian (with powerful, rumbling low D octaves) but it was a perfect setting for a nicely controlled coda to end the performance.

I don’t think this had always been the most sonorous account, nor the most convincingly intense. The capriciousness and impulsiveness of youth came more to the fore than any deeper nobility in the music. But there was much to admire in this performance, in a work which so often ends up being a graveyard for its interpreters.

I won’t lie – the major attraction of this recital was the Stravinsky/Agosti The Firebird Suite. Guido Agosti made his transcription in 1928 when he was twenty-seven years old and dedicated it to his teacher, Busoni. Schott, who publish the score, suggest a duration of ten-minutes – a time, I have to say, I have never heard any pianist in concert come close to. Wang may well have come closer than most; it felt astonishingly fast. But whether he did or whether or didn’t the sheer quality of this performance put this recital in quite a different league. From the moment he launched into the opening of the Danse Infernale a very different pianist had appeared at the keyboard.

The major problem with Agosti’s transcription isn’t really its fearsome difficulty but what he asks the pianist to do to recreate something of Stravinsky’s orchestral scoring. In one bar alone of the Danse Infernale, Agosti calls for a wide range of dynamics from sff to mf and a glissandi; here he also provides a less colourful ossia (without the glissandi), but this is rare in a work which is entirely about voicing the music, articulation, variation of touch and creative rubato.

I got rather less of the spiritual side of Stravinsky’s Firebird from Wang’s performance and rather more of the paganist – and it often felt more inclined towards Scriabin in its contours than it did, perhaps, towards Rimsky-Korsakov. If, for example, his very fast tempo made Agosti’s staccato sound like Scribanesque bullets this wasn’t necessarily a drawback – as well drilled and played as they were they were thrilling to listen to. But when it came to playing Sempre legato, Wang was often too fast to make the transition a seamless one. Nevertheless, this opening dance was a magnificent tour de force of massive hammerings, thrilling keyboard runs and powerful octave leaps. If speed is sometimes a mask to cover error that was not the case here – his accuracy was formidable.

The Berceuse was extremely beautifully done. In some of his most expressive and bewitching playing of the recital, he conveyed not only some of the music’s intimacy but much of its creative brilliance. The sparkling, scintillating fire of the coruscating and thunderous Finale, melded with his technique to perfection. Tremolos, arpeggios, rapid figurations were spot on; at the end he had the piano ringing with bell-like vividness.

If the Stravinsky/Agosti is part ballet it is also part painting. The greatest performances take you not just into The Firebird itself but also into works like Kandinsky’s Composition VII where this transcription’s expressionism meets colour and sound in a kind of synaesthesia. This had been a performance steeped in virtuosity; it had been careful to remain faithful to Stravinsky’s ballet whilst also managing to daub the walls of Wigmore Hall in splashes of colour. It was certainly one of the finest performances of the piece I have yet heard.

There was a huge amount in this recital by Bocheng Wang that was outstanding; the exceptionally vivid and brilliant Firebird Suite will long remain in the memory.

Marc Bridle

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