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Frédéric Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor
György Ligeti: Etudes for piano: Nos. 4 (“Fanfares”) and 10 (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”)
Alexander Scriabin: Piano sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor
Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor

Yuja Wang (piano)
Recorded in Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg-Harburg (November 2008) – 73’58
Deutsche Grammophon B0012534-02 – Booklet in English

“Artistically, I wanted to make a statement.” Also sprach Yuja Wang in the liner notes to her debut recording for Deutsche Grammophon. The 22-year old pianist, who prefers to go by “Yuja”, trained at the Beijing Conservatory in her native China and at the Curtis Institute in the USA. She has assembled a substantial program connected by loose literary allusions to Goethe’s Faust and interconnected musical sonorities. It is an audacious program, both technically and interpretively, and in the end, the question must be revisited: does Yuja make an artistic statement on this disc?

In the repertoire staples, it’s impossible to avoid comparison with essentially the entire history of piano recordings. Yuja’s technique is mostly secure, though at times a bit heavy in accompanimental figuration, which often overpowers single-note melodic writing. In the Chopin sonata, the opening movement is taken at a nicely flowing tempo, and sets a good precedent for the recital, with a tastefully phrased second theme. Things are a bit downhill from there. In the scherzo, the main theme is too heavy, the sudden switches from forte to piano don’t really happen, the trio is too slow, and the smorzando at the end fails to come across. The famous marche funèbre melody is overwhelmed by its accompaniment. The finale, which connects sonically to some of the other music on the disc, is successful at first but looses shape as it progresses. The propulsion flags, and there is a distinct lack of a true sting at the ending. Listening to the performance, I couldn’t help but constantly wish for the imaginative and risky interpretive choices that others had made.

Scriabin’s second sonata is an intelligent inclusion in the program, the presto movement bridging an historical gap between the Chopin and Ligeti’s Der Zauberlehrling. Yuja is in good form in the first movement, providing an especially effective gossamer texture at the end. The second movement, however, suffers from the same problems found in the finale of the Chopin sonata. The perpetual motion figuration is technically solid, but the structure of the movement simply isn’t construed. Pianists like Marc-André Hamelin and Lev Oborin give the movement an almost frightening, preternatural momentum, and, while there is certainly more than one interpretive possibility, Yuja’s performance comes across as unsophisticated and squarely in the middle of the road.

I was hoping that, in the Liszt sonata, a clear artistic statement would finally be made. There is clear technical command over the entire piece, with accurate octaves, rhythmically even sixteenth-note flourishes and a very “correctly” voiced fugue, but we never see the forest for the trees. Individual passages are convincingly structured and phrased, but the peaks and valleys are all even instead of sculpted to form a dynamic 30-minute musical panorama. The second theme of the piece encapsulates some of the problems present on the entire disc. The repeated accompanying chords aren’t subservient to the melody, and there is nothing grandioso about the playing. It doesn’t sound like the important moment it should be. Its final statement in B major, which should be a shattering dénouement after the rushing octave figuration that leads into it (as in Argerich, Richter, Arrau, etc.), finds Yuja sounding spent, all the energy vanquished in the buildup and no gas left to propel us over the summit. All in all, the interpretation lacks the Faustian magic that the best performances have.

Two Ligeti etudes run between the repertoire staples like pianistic rivulets. In Fanfares, Yuja is too square in the ostinato rhythmic pattern, making it sound studied instead of fun. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is effectively played, and Yuja finally produces here a sense of magic that was missing in the larger works.

It seems odd and almost reckless that an artist who is self-consciously trying to find her own voice would debut with this program. Thrust into the extremely deep-recorded legacy of the three sonatas on this disc, Yuja needed to be extraordinary through and through. The architecture of the works, however, crumbles under what seems almost like interpretive indifference, and this might stem from the contradictions running through her statements in the CD booklet. She is unable to securely form an opinion of tradition (“…it’s basically just a teacher who has a bunch of students… No, wait a moment… tradition is really a Jungian archetype…”) or how she wants her career develop (“… my goal at this moment is just to see what comes my way…”), and this lack of commitment comes across in the playing. It seems that the idea of a debut CD of encore pieces might have been a smarter choice. As it is, the disc lacks artistic focus, and just doesn’t measure up to the benchmark recordings.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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