That she already has a loyal Boston fan base here was evidenced Friday night at Jordan Hall when Yuja Wang presented her Boston debut recital for the Celebrity Series. She got down to business immediately in some serious party attire, launching into the whirlwind triplets that begin the Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 28.
The movements unfolded without pause, and Yuja Wang’s performance was serious, seamless. Brittle and appropriately brutal would have been fine, but we were treated instead to satisfyingly rich (and brutal). And relentless. Just what she was after, I suspect.
What becomes clear about Wang’s playing when hearing her live is that there is no cheating, no overcoming any weaknesses through affection, phrasing, or gesture. There are no weaknesses. Does she radiate pure joy? Not so much. Not her style. She takes her work and play seriously. There is a flawless sense of rhythm, balance, and precision, and a purity of architecture and form.
There was a sweet, pleading quality to the (relatively) lyrical 2nd theme of the Prokofiev, while maintaining drive and intensity. (Wang had promised some “edgy Prokofievian sarcasm” in her BMInt interview here). We got some of that, but this was better. There was plenty of power and pyrotechnics, a big sound, but in many places in the 3rd movement, a surprisingly light, semi-ethereal articulation. She arrived at the ending almost abruptly. Time condensed. The audience was thrilled.
Then the Chopin B Minor Sonata, Op. 58. Wang’s approach was not so Germanic, or martial, in the opening material, where Chopin is at his most squarely martial (the polonaises being a different story). This was a bit too bad, because with the arrival of the singing, Bellini-like 2nd theme, we didn’t get that great sense of contrast, of opening up and release, or luxuriating in the melody. Wang was pushing through this work (with no repeat of the exposition), building a larger arch for the work, worrying less about contrast within the separate movements. (The same could be said of the 2nd and 3rd movements.) The fugal development was finely wrought and voiced, with clear dialogue between soprano and tenor voices, as long as we could keep up with her.
She danced over the keyboard for the 2nd movement scherzo and barely slowed down for the middle section, then sped up for the reprise! Which was a bit otherworldly, what you might expect from the last movement of the B-flat Minor Sonata, the “wind over the graves” movement, but not nearly so dark. A much different effect, but still all about producing an effect of sound.
Wang gave us contrast between, if not so much within, the last two. A lyricism to the 3rd movement gave way to the big, driven virtuoso finale—never showy, always in service to the composer.
To say this was the weakest piece on the program really isn’t doing any injustice to Wang. After all, she set the bar quite high for all the other works on the program. She is one of those pianists for this pianist, doesn’t generate any piano envy. Her abilities so far exceed mere mortal ones that it just doesn’t occur to ponder what it might be like to play like that.
After intermission, there was a breathtaking rendition of a “jazz” work, Kapustin’s Variations, Op. 41, built around an homage to Stravinsky’s opening bassoon solo in The Rite of Spring. If that sounds impossibly strange, go have a listen. Wang’s incredible rhythmic foundation and chops allowed her (and us) to romp. Her controlled body language didn’t give away how much bounce she brought to the music, which went from delicate, to fleet, to frisky, raucous, rich, and jazzy, within a tightly woven structure, where she was right at home. Especially with those lovely insouciant touches that generated (almost) quiet laughter from the crowd, though she seemed in a bit of a hurry.
More Chopin followed. The big Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, and the 3rd Ballade in A-flat, Op. 47. With the Nocturne, the return of theme, richly textured, three against four harmonies, was finely wrought. So much rich texture and rhythm but all in service to a lyrical melodic line. But it was the Ballade that showed this artist in top form. Here, she sang and harvested harmonic material (particularly just before the coda in the bass) that brought Chopin into the 21st century with a beautiful, rich arch of sound and structure through to the last note.
Last on the program: Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrouchka. A signature piece for Wang, the Stravinksy was spectacular. Her incredible rhythm and keyboard bounce came into great service here. But more than that, it’s fair to suggest that most first-rate conductors of first-rate orchestras who have a better than first-rate version of this work for orchestra, would have envied the range of colors and sounds she produced all on one instrument! (So there may be Yuja envy after all!).
She had us thinking of inner voices (musically) while hearing music that was at once brittle, harsh (both good things), bright, and dark. And at times, were there sounds of innocence. Really? Yes, for lack of a better word. And pain.
Just then I was wanting some woodenness in homage to the title character; we got it in abundance in the 2nd movement. Shimmery playing, too. And bell sounds, as if form Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Wang took us for a great ride in the 3rd movement, covering so much ground (and keyboard), galloping then thudding (another good thing) to conclusion.
So of course there was a standing ovation. Wang was offstage in an instant, and back on stage, like a dart, a few times, before giving us her rendition of Art Tatum’s “Tea for Two,” which pulled sighs and “aahhs” from the audience.
Her 2nd and final encore was the Bizet/Horowitz Carmen Variations. I’m not sure if Wang contributed to the composition (i.e. Bizet/Horowitz/Wang), but her execution would have made Horowitz blush. Through her astonishing visual and sonic display, it was as if this piece had been hardwired to her system.
So, what was missing? Anything? I think so, but I can’t easily identify what. The review title above, “…dispatched with great expedition,” paraphrases a quote from Ishmael in “Moby Dick,” who was enjoying chowder on Nantucket, which he dispatched with great expedition. In Wang’s case, I just wonder if we’re missing a little umami, that special deepness of flavor (or something) that, once so difficult to define in food, is still so difficult to define in music.