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From The Limpid to the Luciferean

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
12/12/2014 -  
Franz Schubert/Franz Liszt: Liebesbotschaft from Schwanengesang, D. 957/S. 560 – Aufenthalt from Schwanengesang, D. 957/S. 560 – Der Müller und der Bach from Die schöne Müllerin D. 795/S. 565
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959
Alexander Scriabin: Prelude for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 1 – Fantasy in B Minor, Opus 28 – Preludes in f-sharp Minor, Opus 11, No. 8, & in B-flat Minor, Opus 37, No. 1 – Two Poems, Opus 63 – Piano Sonata Number 9 “Black Mass”, Opus 68
Mily Balakirev: Islamey

Yuja Wang (Pianist)

Y. Wang (© Robert Torres)

We start with an unhappy fact. Several people last night did not approve of Yuja Wang’s second-half gown.

This is no joke. Her earlier recital here had been spectacularly brilliant, her ensuing concerts had been uncontestably lauded, her program here was original and satisfying to a singular degree.

Yet (ah, that “yet” which summons up immense recriminations), in the lobby after the program and five sumptuous encores, I overheard two conversations among the Mighty and Discerning who attended, saying that (gulp) the black gown Yuja Wang wore for the second half was (gulp again) not as beautiful as the gowns she usually wears!!

Oh, horrors! Oh, dismay! Oh, reality!

Yuja Wang has become as reputed amongst the faux-fashionistas as the artistically discerning. And while the oohs and ahhhs greeting her sky-blue high-slit opening gown at the opening were deserved, the black-as-Steinway gown into which she changed for her Scriabin half were...well, hardly worthy of the pianist.

Enough of this nonsense. Yuja Wang could be wearing dirty dungarees and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, and after the first notes of her performance, that would disappear. For at the tender age of 27, she is evolving into one of the most incisive energetic and magnetic pianists of our day.

I say this 48 hours after hearing another great young pianist, Daniil Trifonov. His mighty hands reverted back to an age when power was everything, the might made right. And in his case, that was true.

With Yuja Wang, we had an entirely different kind of artist. She was hardly a delicate flower, she could pound out the Scriabin “Black Mass” with demonic fury, and the recitative of the Schubert A Major slow movement was Sturmier and Drangier than I can remember.

But by beginning the concert with three “stories”–Schubert songs arranged by Franz Liszt–she created a sense of organic, rather than muscular drama. The fact was that, rather than admiring Ms. Wang (or her gown), we had time to admire the music. That indeed is rare.

The three Liszt arrangements of Schubert were unlike the Bach arrangements made two nights before. That was a basic transcription. Here, Liszt went ahead freely, just as Ms. Wang stuck to the score. Yet so fine were the arrangements, that one felt the gentle ripples of the “love message” of Swan Song. Equally, her fine touch, her balance and unerring flow of the second song from the same cycle, was as excellent as that most touching, most noble arrangement from one of Schubert’s most beautiful song, The Miller and the Brook..

That A Major Sonata, for those who knew the music, was an equally rare “story.” We knew that the last chords were reflections of the first, but in the meantime, Ms. Wang allowed us to try and savor the feelings of Schubert in his last year of life.

The results were pretty enough, but not really packed with the emotion for which she is so capable. No matter what the fits and starts of the work, pianists like Brendel are able to hold it together. Ms. Wang went for the contrasts in the first movement, that lulling and aforesaid storm of the second. For some reason, no repeat was heard in the scherzo. But in the rondo-finale, Ms. Wang offered songs galore, each tied to the other with that organic current of Schubert’s unstoppable genius.

It was a tale told by and played by an artist–and when those last chords (Of doom? Of finality? Of elation?) were repeated, Yuja Wang realized how monumental that sonata can be.

For the second half, Ms. Wang played Scriabin’s work in chronological order, going from the flowing Left Hand Prelude to the diabolical “Black Mass” Sonata. From Chopinesque to Chopin-Lisztian, although her actual Chopin-waltz encore had far more personality.

But with the Ninth Sonata, Yuja Wang’s energy, clarity, even fierceness came to the fore. I could imagine Mr. Trifonov playing the same work and almost breaking the piano with his savagery. Mr. Yang offered equal grotesqueries, but they had a more macabre more menacing touch. And they also had the touch of Ms.Yang’s unerring musicianship, since she never let the gruesome Russian harmonies overcome the monumental structure of the work.

So stunning was the work as a whole that the finishing bravura work, Mily Balakirev’s Islamey was almost unnecessary. Once known as the most difficult piano work in the repertory, it has long been exceeded by our Boulezes and Stockhausens. But it is still a massive, pounding thundering and very extrovert-ish work.

To most 19th Century Russians, the eastern tribes projected the same romance and exoticism that East Coast Americans felt for the Indians of the West. Whatever the reality, people like Borodin, Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov exploited this overblown romance for some of their best music.

Ms. Wang played the ersatz Islamic music to the hilt, but there was little doubt she wanted to be–and certainly was–as impressive in her technique as her superb musicianship.

With a most modest demeanor, she offered five encores, including three more arrangements. The wicked Horowitz Carmen variations, and, even more interesting a delicious and natural Tea For Two arrangement by Art Tatum.

In this case, the gown did not maketh the artist. She did it by herself, with a recital gratifying, impressive, and–far more important–totally pleasurable.

Harry Rolnick



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