Jue Wang may be a pianist markedly attuned to color and harmony, more than most anyway. Last Saturday night at Jordan Hall he gave a Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts recital featuring Chopin and Rachmaninoff—among other things note-perfect, as one admirer put it afterward. The four Chopin Ballades, although written over a decade-plus, were presented 4, 2, 3, 1 by Wang in a single gesture, to take us on a journey from C major to F minor to F major to A minor to A-flat major to G minor. After intermission Rachmaninoff picked up with G major, Barcarolle opus 10 no. 3, and closed with B-flat minor, Sonata no. 2 in its original version. (I’m not as sensitive to key and harmony as I need to be, so some of this effect was reduced if not lost.)
But a large problem was the Ballades themselves. Not easy to reveal, and complex in argument, they have been eschewed by more than one leading Chopin pianist. The seriously contrapuntal Fourth is structurally most intricate, yet none of them is readily understood, except from a pianist with a firmer sense of form. And however adept Wang was digitally, the larger problem was that he just didn’t play very coherently. He lacked line and song long and short, propulsion and forward motion; many textures were opaque if not messy; some overpedaling did no favors to already chopped phrasing, unspotlit passages, excessively staggered-hand rhythms. Segmentation was the order of the evening. Sometimes one hand almost disappeared, although not the one you were anticipating. There were colors and many lovely, grandly quiet cadences, and notably gracious mezzoforte endings where everyone else pounces and often pounds. Wang moreover caught some of Chopin’s characteristic irritation, in David Dubal’s insightful phrase. The occasional passage would indeed blaze with hues. But mostly, by measure and by section, it sounded fitful and felt undercooked.
The Rachmaninoff Barcarolle was, again, halt, wanting lilt, and the Second Sonata kept losing momentum, as Wang appeared sometimes to micropause to think and collect himself. But then, as this piece sodden in length and texture (the notes cited the composer’s own opinion of it) kept on going, Wang gained poise and brio, relaxed a bit, enjoyed both himself playing and the work played as much as was feasible. A nicer memory to leave the audience.
Resonating like Grieg in China , the similarly modest encore, a popular transcription by Jianzhong Wang of the folksong “Liu Yang River,” came with unadorned affection.