Yuja Wang delivers more heat than light in Boston recital debut

October 19, 2013 at 11:35 am

By David Wright

Yuja Wang performed Friday night at Jordan Hall, an event presented by the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

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

7 Responses to “Yuja Wang delivers more heat than light in Boston recital debut”

  1. Posted Oct 19, 2013 at 7:10 pm by Jack Tes

    I’ve read tour reviews of this same recital from a number of reviewers, and most think it’s fantastic. What really matters, however, is how her audiences feel, and her audience last night loved what they heard based on the enthusiastic applause they showered on her. That is the REAL REVIEW.

  2. Posted Oct 20, 2013 at 11:34 am by Clare Angal

    This review is shockingly difficult to believe or to take seriously. Although I was not at the concert, I have heard Yuja perform on countless occasions and comments such as ‘musical insight and communication harder to come by’, ‘lack of differentiation,’ ‘, weak, unfocused, dim,’ and so forth are descriptors that are simply so far removed from her performance aesthetic that they are reduced to being simply laughable. Hence, it is very easy to dismiss this review as one which is simply critical for the mere sake of criticizing.

  3. Posted Oct 20, 2013 at 2:25 pm by terry baer

    On her “worst” day, Ms Wang is the best of them all by multiple country miles…

  4. Posted Oct 21, 2013 at 2:02 pm by Don Allen

    Like the other commenters, I too disagree with this review. I was at the recital. I’ve studied the Prokofiev, the Chopin Sonata, and some of the Stravinsky. I mention this only to establish that I know some of this music well.

    I think Wang is a *phenomenal* pianist, maybe our young Martha Argerich. She has technical equipment available only to The Chosen Few and I think there is a real artist inside her controlling it. (I can’t resist commenting on her attire, which I think is absurd. She doesn’t need to dress like that. She’s so good that she doesn’t need to resort to the marketing gimmicks that have become all too common in the classical music business.)

    I thought the first movement of the Chopin Sonata was beautifully played, lovely piano sound, and a real sense of its architecture. The slow movement was lovely. The fearsome last four pages of the last movement, where Chopin asks you for a lot more just when your arms are ready to fall off, was handled like the artist and virtuoso she is.

    It’s wonderful to have brilliant young people like Wang, Andsnes, and Hilary Hahn before the public. They help to keep this great art alive.

  5. Posted Oct 21, 2013 at 3:47 pm by mark van cleve

    Nobody does snooty like Boston!

  6. Posted Oct 22, 2013 at 9:04 am by Jonathan Simon

    Well . . . I WAS at the concert (isn’t that more or less a prerequisite for evaluating a critical response to a particular performance?) and would have written essentially the same review, perhaps a bit less charitable.

    I think we go to performances with individual and quite different expectations and it is the very rare performance that manages to fulfill everyone’s. Having now heard Ms. Wang for the first time, I cannot comment on her “normal” aesthetic or soul/technique ratio, but this particular performance was almost entirely technique-reliant and left me–and evidently about half the audience–more exhausted than moved.

    To me the problem was mostly a failure to identify the gravitational center of each work. This was most evident in the Chopin Sonata where the Largo is unmistakeably that center but was somehow missed or passed through by Ms. Wang on her way to the throbbing–but not central–Agitato. There were comparable disappointments in the emotional weightings of several other works.

    All this I think has less to do with technique per se–and here I mean ABILITY to voice, bend, linger–than with an INTEREST in doing so, a willingness to transcend the safety of a brilliant technical gift in order to plumb the depths. Coincidentally my companion and I were present at another recital this weekend which offered essentially the reverse soul/technique quotient, so we got into a discussion about which was more feasible to develop in the course of a career assuming you started with a great gift of one.

    Actually I don’t think either is, which is why there are so very few truly great and long-memorable performers who were somehow granted the gift of both. It is worth noting that Arthur Rubinstein himself took a long sabbatical at I believe age 49 to reapproach his repertoire, a difficult option at any mid-career stage, especially early-on, but a path that I believe should be chosen more often than it is.

  7. Posted Oct 26, 2013 at 1:59 am by Robert Berkowitz

    COMPLETELY AGREE with this review, with the possible exception of being less charitably disposed to her Chopin Sonata. I am SO tired of big technique for the sake of big technique. Her musical insights were shallow at best.

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