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The Impossible Made Oh-So-Easy

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/12/2022 -  & March 30 (Vancouver), April 1st (Seattle), 3 (San Francisco), 6 (Los Angeles), 8 (Kalamazoo), 10 (Chicago), 18 (Aix‑en‑Provence), 20 (London), 22 (Paris), 24 (Praha), 26 (Wien), May 15 (Amsterdam), 17 (Berlin), July 26 (Verbier), 2022
Ludwig wan Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major, Opus 31, No. 3
Arnold Schoenberg: Suite for Piano, Opus 25
Győrgy Ligeti: Etudes No. 6 “Automne à Varsovie” & No. 13 “L’Escalier du diable”
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 3, Opus 23
Isaac Albéniz: Iberia, Book 3: 3. “Lavapiés”
Nikolai Kapustin: Preludes, Opus 53, Nos. 11 & 12

Yuja Wang (Pianist)

Wang Y. (© Kirk Edwards)

Brilliant pianists can be labelled gifts of nature (let’s say Trifonov), gifts for humanity (Brendel) and in the case of Yuja Wang... she is impossible to define. Yet listening to her this week at Carnegie Hall, let’s just say she would fit in ideally with a party of Greek deities on Mount Olympus.

Yes, she is super‑human in a way, her digits landing like electrons on those mere Steinway 88 keys. (If the piano had twice as many, she would make use of them all.) And she has no relation to the Biblical or Koranic god, since: her deities are not somber, but jovial. Her force would make Zeus throw away his thunderbolts in despair. And Venus, listening to these tones, would cease imagining she was the apotheosis of beauty.

Not that Ms. Wang was either light or light‑hearted in her performance. Her concert had the challenges of an Augean Stable (to continue the metaphor). Schoenberg’s Suite could have been a continuum of dissonance. Ms. Wang played it literally like the 18th Century dance movements (Gavotte, Musette, Gigue). Her 6th Ligeti etude Automne à Varsovie transported those infinite downward scales into Presto con fuoco algorithms that would please any physicist. And with Nicolai Kapustin’s three Preludes, she allowed his subtle jazzy bluesy measures so subtly that one could feel rather than hear them.

Down to facts. Yes, Ms. Wang is still wearing her so haute gowns: Yellow with sparkles, and then chartreuse. Her technique is so fantastic that one never imagines that she might make a mistake, (though she possibly did so.) Yet such dazzling fingerwork rarely hid the music itself.

And the opening “fact” was a Beethoven Sonata which roared with laughter–as the composer probably did!

Yes, this opening was the gateway a rare Beethoven treat. Yuja Wang knows her Beethoven, and knows not to hide the humor. Does this work have pathos? Possibly. But she took this first movement with both speed and precision and even a kind of jocularity. The scherzo, though, is where she showed the most extraordinary energy, even more than the final Presto con fuoco.

In this second movement she played the tempestuous endless cadenza. But when Beethoven added that stop‑short sforzando note, she almost literally snapped at the piano! As if to berate that note from stopping her fingers from doing their stuff.

After the Beethoven, Ms. Wang played the Schoenberg Suite for Piano–his first 12‑tone piece–with a force, a drama, and not a little obeisance to the five Baroque dances. I doubt if any mere writer could analyze the “dancing”. But when played with such articulation, they don’t need to be. And if Ms. Wang helped persuade those in the audience not exhibit Fear and Trembling at the name Schoenberg all, the better.

(Many years ago, I interviewed a pianist who told me that she had programmed the Suite, that she knew the notes, but had no idea how to play it. “So,” she said, “I called up Mr. Schoenberg, and he told me, ‘You play lovely Rachmaninov. Play the notes as if you were playing Rachmaninov.’”)

Ms. Wang shifted gears immediately with another composer who–like the artist herself–can hardly be compartmentalized. Győrgy Ligeti had no school: he wrote the way he wanted–and his Etudes are experiments, etudes, and endless imagination from a composer who (I was told in Budapest) was a mediocre pianist at best.

The etude Automne à Varsovie could have had a Chopinesque flavor, though I doubt if he would recognize it. But the endless descending scales, changing rhythms and harmonies, gathered a velocity and a dynamism. At for the 13th Etude, rightly called The Devil’s Staircase, this written in California, where Ligeti was attempting to bicycle against a torrential wind-and-rain storm. The miracle was that Ms. Wang, starting quietly, built it into a quasi-literal thunderstorm.

And oh, how I would love to hear a whole program with Yuja Wang playing all books of Etudes.

The following Scriabin Sonata was relatively early. And like the Sixth Etude of Ligeti, it had a Chopinesque drama. Not transmogrified like the Hungarian composer, but with the story‑telling pathos of the Polish composer. Ms. Wang started freely, wildly, and turned to two movements of pure Chopinesque emotion.

The final Presto con fuoco (the second of the evening) showed the pianist whirling around. Like Busoni’s quote above, “Everything was possible.”

For the final three works, Ms. Wang made a musical pentimento, almost concealing the blatant meanings. Albéniz’ “Lavapiés” (a barrio in the center of Madrid) was, yes, with Latin rhythms, but these erupted only toward the end.

Kapustin, played too rarely in New York, idolized jazz, but one had to listen careful between the plethora of notes to catch the bluesy notes. It had the melodies of Russia, the complexities of Thelonious Monk.

(Somebody once described Kapustin as “Rasputin”, since he was a Russian (Thelonious) Monk.)

One normally wouldn’t mention encores, but since Ms. Wang chose the most esoteric titles without speaking, they are listed below:
Felix Mendelssohn: Song Without Words, Opus 67, No. 2
Peter Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Opus 20: “Dance of the Four Swans” (Arranged by Earl Wild)
Nikolai Kapustin: Concert Etude “Toccatina”, Opus 40, No. 3
Arturo Márquez: Danzón No. 2
Philip Glass: Etude No. 6
Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7, Opus 83: 3. Precipitato

Literally, they showed the supreme mastery of her instrument. In essence, they established how any of her music could sprout wings.

Methinks if Yuja Wang dared to played the most dour work of J.S.Bach, his Art of the Fugue, the music would dance above the notes themselves.

Harry Rolnick



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