Yuja Wang delivers more heat than light in Boston recital debut
If they ever have a Piano Olympics, look for Yuja Wang on the medals stand. Faster, higher, stronger were the watchwords for much of the Chinese pianist’s recital Friday night, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
Wang displayed her jaw-dropping facility at the keyboard in a hundred different ways during a program of familiar works by Prokofiev, Chopin and Stravinsky, plus a jazzy curiosity by Nikolai Kapustin. Like a perfectly-executed triple axel combination, her technique was itself a thing of beauty, but actual musical insight and communication were harder to come by in this Boston recital debut.
The evening began inauspiciously with a clattery performance of Prokofiev’s one-movement Sonata No. 3, in which the pianist didn’t differentiate between the important notes and the less important ones, so that noisy accompaniments often eclipsed the weakly-projected themes.
Wang’s intention was apparently to sound aggressive, steely and modern, but unfocused tone in both soft and loud passages undermined that, producing not hard, bright music but only a jumble of notes. It was a reminder that just because a piece has a machine-age aesthetic doesn’t mean it should sound as though it is being played by a machine.
So it was a pleasant surprise to hear the opening bars of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 and discover that Wang actually did know a thing or two about voicing chords. Her sound became more three-dimensional, and she seemed to respond instinctively to Chopin’s freewheeling take on sonata form.
She communicated effectively the interplay of melody, countermelody and bass that is essential to Chopin’s style. Chordal passages throbbed with energy, and in the arching second theme she showed that she could get quite a bit of sing out of hammers and strings.
The sonata’s bubbly scherzo should sound tossed off, and “tossed off” is very much in the fleet-fingered Wang’s repertoire. Using the same casual attitude toward the warm central trio, however, left it sounding vague and expressionless.
The remarkable Largo movement is like a cross between a broad Beethoven adagio and a Chopin nocturne, and the lush harmonies of its middle section anticipate Rachmaninoff. Music with this complex an aesthetic doesn’t “play itself,” as Wang’s weak, unfocused performance proved Friday night. She played with dignity and sensitivity, but lack of a clear, projected tone in the movement’s prevailing piano and pianissimo dynamics hampered her efforts.
The impetuous finale’s galloping octaves and finger-twisting scales held few terrors for Wang, and this pianist definitely does “impetuous.” She also showed a canny sense of dramatic timing, however, knowing when to rein the horses in or hold the dynamic down, the better to turn up the heat a few moments later. With this thrill ride for a topper, the Chopin sonata proved overall the most satisfying performance of the night.
After the intermission, Wang started things off brightly with Kapustin’s Variations for Piano, Op. 41. The composer, a conservatory-trained pianist and product of the post-Stalin era when the door cracked open slightly for jazz players in the Soviet Union, writes in a style that could be described as “Chopin, Liszt, and Erroll Garner walk into a bar.”
The theme of these virtuoso variations was none other than the opening bassoon solo of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which turned out, in the jazz context, to bear quite a resemblance to La Vie en Rose. In Wang’s animated performance—oriented a bit more toward classical refinement than jazz attack—Stravinsky’s “standard” lent itself quite charmingly to treatments as diverse as a smoky Bill Evans ballad and hot Art Tatum licks.
After such a zingy novelty, it would be hard for any pianist to settle the audience down for a Chopin nocturne, and Wang’s dim performance of the tragic Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1 didn’t engage one’s attention. The piece’s somber opening, instead of walking with the fateful tread of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, sounded like a way to pass some time before getting to the part with the loud octaves.
The same composer’s Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47, fared better, since it offered some athleticism for Wang to get her cleats into, but the overall approach was superficial, and the piece’s rich emotional palette went mostly unexplored.
Stravinsky arranged Three Movements from Petrushka as a brilliant recital piece for Arthur Rubinstein, and Wang might have done well to reflect on the color and flair of the Polish pianist’s playing before she tackled it. She took everything at a blistering clip, demonstrating here as elsewhere in the program that faster doesn’t necessarily equal more exciting.
Wang effectively mined some drama from the episodic, grotesque middle movement, but her relentlessly brittle touch and monochromatic tone turned the virtuoso finale into a piling-up of tricks that soon tired the ear.
At the program’s close, the pianist was vociferously cheered by about half those present, and politely applauded by the rest. She played two showy encores: Art Tatum’s brilliant arrangement of Tea for Two with Wang’s added improvisations, and Vladimir Horowitz’s über-brilliant Carmen Variations.
The next presentation by Celebrity Series of Boston is mandolinist Chris Thile, 7 p.m. Sunday at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661.
Posted in Performances