Review by Paul E. Robinson
Twenty-one year old Beijing-born Yuja Wang, who appeared in recital this past week at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, is almost certain to become one of the foremost pianists of her generation; in less than a year she has taken the music world by storm, wowing audiences in major concerts with conductors of the stature of Charles Dutoit and Michael Tilson-Thomas.
Marita and I, having just returned from Beijing and visiting friends in the area, were delighted to have the opportunity to hear this highly touted new talent in concert. Did she live up to her advance billing? Virtually – with some reservations.
A Big Sound in a Small Hall
Ms. Wang performed in Hahn Hall, a small auditorium seating 350. In this setting, one’s first impression was that the sound was too bright and too brittle; whether this was the fault of the hall, the piano (Steinway) or Wang, is difficult to say. She began her program with four Scarlatti Sonatas. While the virtuosity was amazing, the loud chords seemed to be outside the frame – too loud, both for the music and for the hall.
The second piece on the program was Brahms‘ Variations on a Theme of Paganini Op. 35. While this music is uncharacteristically virtuosic for Brahms, Wang’s performance was still over the top in its super-fast tempi and extremes of volume. Again, the virtuosity was stunning! While marveling at the incredible speed with which her fingers flew over the keyboard, I had to wonder if she had any sense at all of the style of the music. I stepped out for intermission, convinced that Yuja Wang had a freaky technique, but lacked maturity or even respect for the music she was playing.
Explosive Chopin and Exuberant Stravinsky!
The second half of the concert was a very different story. Even the bright and brittle sound seemed to have mellowed. It could be that after an hour of heavy-duty punishment, the piano had lost its hard edge. But perhaps Wang made some adjustments too. In any case, the young pianist gave us a superlative performance of Chopin‘s Piano Sonata No. 2 and an even better one of Stravinsky‘s “Petrushka.”
The tendency to play too fast and too loud persisted, but in the Chopin it works when the performer brings such clarity and intensity to the music. Wang’s playing here was not just powerful and focused – it was explosive! She has that rare quality of being able to raise climaxes to the highest level of excitement in the heat of the moment – the mark of a true virtuoso.
Yuja Wang’s technique is remarkable, but her force of personality is a wonder too. The first movement of the Chopin was magnificent, and in the middle section of the scherzo she found repose, a quality that had not been heard earlier in the concert. In the funeral march she carefully prepared the climaxes and did not overdo them – a very good sign for her ongoing development as an artist.
Technique, Rhythm, Passion, Personality – the Complete Package!
Without a doubt, the Stravinsky was the highlight of the concert. This music is one of the most challenging pieces in the repertoire, even for pianists with excellent technique. It never lets up, and Stravinsky has inserted in the score all manner of unusual rhythmic and melodic figurations. Wang played without any apparent technical problems whatsoever. Her rhythms were dead-on crisp and accurate, and she brought out all the color and exuberance the score demands.
YujaWang was recently signed by Deutsche Grammophon. Her first album on the label (DG B0012534-02) was released last week, and was on sale at the concert; those listeners who bought it will not be disappointed. On the CD they can hear again the Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2, along with the Liszt B minor, Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 and some Ligeti Etudes.
This summer Ms. Wang will be featured at the Lucerne Festival playing Prokokiev with Claudio Abbado. To keep abreast of this remarkable young pianist’s rapidly evolving career, check in regularly at her website.