Pianist Yang finds spectacle and reverence in Celebrity Series debut

December 5, 2019 at 12:03 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Joyce Yang performed music of Liszt, Schumann and Carl Vine Wednesday night at Pickman Hall.

From the beginning, Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor shocked even sophisticated  listeners. Robert Schumann, the sonata’s dedicatee, distanced himself from the overly grand and wild aesthetic Liszt explored in the work. Eduard Hanslick, after hearing a performance twenty-four years after the piece was written, offered a damning critique: “Anyone who has heard it and finds it beautiful is beyond help.”

Yet Liszt’s Sonata has become a keyboard repertoire cornerstone over the past century and a half.  And, as performed by pianist Joyce Yang in her Celebrity Series debut at Pickman Hall Wednesday night, the opulent score took on an unexpected depth and serenity.

The Korean pianist has a fine feel for Lisztian flair. Her technique throughout was superb, and she charted the sonata’s cascading runs and surging crescendos with precision and bravura. Yang also found a sweep and sensitivity in the sonata’s lyrical passages that offered poignant departure from the oft-heard crash-and-bang intensity. In effect, this was Liszt that was technically dazzling, thoughtful, and deeply heartfelt.

Yang kept an eye to the grand structure while varying and coloring her tone as each theme appeared in different guises. The demonic left-hand motive that opens the sonata later became a soaring melody, Yang softening her touch to find a fitting soulful expression. Her octave runs sounded with an almost orchestral weight and grandeur. So too did the powerful figures that erupted from the fugue, the lines resonating clearly while carrying the momentum forward. But the most satisfying effect of Yang’s performance came at work’s end, where her soft touch made the chords chime like distant bells.

Her performance of Schumann’s Carnaval was similarly robust and reflective. This familiar set of character pieces paints vivid personality profiles of both real and imaginary individuals at a masked ball.

Yang took listeners on a journey through the work’s almost schizophrenic shifts in mood. The “Préamble” had a boldness and spontaneity that carried through the rest of the set. “Pierrot” brought mystery; “Eusebius” was aptly poetic. Yang’s fiery runs in “Florestan” softened abruptly into the coy lines of “Coquette.” The concluding “Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins” took on martial conviction.

Yang’s performance also resulted in fresh interpretive insights. “Chiarina,” Schumann’s depiction of young Clara Wieck (whom he later married), came off with stately assurance, while the phrases in “Estrella,” a portrait of Schumann’s then fiancée Ernestine von Fricken, surged passionately. Under Yang’s fingers, “Reconnaissance” was a warm reunion between two lovers, the rhythmic figures palpitating like heartbeats.

Selections from Carl Vine’s Anne Landa Preludes also featured the pianist in a wide expressive range.

Completed in 2006, the Anne Landa Preludes are like a musical diary that captures Vine’s experiences studying piano as a child. Throughout, he treats various figures and clichés with a mix of humor and nostalgia. His language is primarily tonal, though he uses generous dissonance to dramatic effect.

Under Yang’s fingers, the lyrical movements were attractive in their simplicity. “Short Story,” had searching intimacy. The phrases of “Romance” rose and fell gently, and the final “Chorale” had the soft glow of a jazz ballad.

Others featured Yang in dazzling technical feats. Her left-hand figures in “Thumper” injected a zest and drive to the groove set by her right-hand chords. “Divertissement” showcased her in bluesy melodies that unfolded into crisply rendered boogie-woogie riffs. In “Tarantella, ” Yang’s runs coursed with the verve of a bebop cutting session.

The opener, selections from Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, featured Yang in moments of solace and elegance.

Written over a thirty-year period, the Lyric Pieces reflect the intimate romanticism of Schubert and Schumann. Yet in the famous Arietta, Yang found a pearly tone and fluidity that could have been at home in one Debussy’s Preludes. Her rendering of “Notturno” was shaped with the gentle sweep of a Chopin miniature.

In “Once upon a time,” Yang built the opening flourishes into passages that bounded with rustic vitality. She tossed off the runs of the Scherzo with a fluidity that carried into “Puck,” which brought the set to a vibrant conclusion.

Yang’s encore, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, put the finishing touches on a recital marked by both keyboard spectacle and, ultimately, a sense of reverence.

The Celebrity Series will feature cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason in music by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Barber, and Lutoslawski 8 p.m. December 13 at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661

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