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A Vision in Luxe Technique With Emerging Repose


Robert Torres photo from the concert

Still young enough to allow one profitably to guess about what path her career might take, pianist Yuja Wang has made her name by harnessing her powerful and astounding technique to produce indelible performances of Romantic repertoire, especially Russian works. In recent years she tackled more Germanic repertoire, notably the “Hammerklavier,” gaining mixed, though predominantly positive reviews. On Friday she brought her current program, which returns, in the main, to the Russian Romantic, to Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series. A couple of unusual choices hinted at a much more interesting future for this incredibly engaging talent.

It would be an act of supererogation to dismiss any program that contained Rachmaninoff preludes and a Prokofiev sonata as unshowy, but Wang’s mastery of technique is so thorough that she makes the super-human seem matter-of-fact. There’s also mercurial intelligence constantly at play in her work. During her most satisfying moments, one can to take her technique for granted and instead focus on what she is doing interpretively: a towering virtuoso, she can make you forget her virtuosity. This approach has the danger of exposing music that invests most of its energy in technical display. At moments in the opening set of six Rachmaninoff preludes and Études-tableaux, the music’s relentlessness seemed unworthy of the musician.  But what depth Wang found in Rachmaninoff’s lyricism. The B Minor Prelude, Op. 32, no. 10, was all velvet, dotted-triple rhythms against shifting harmonies, with a middle section of huge pounding triplets that achieved a sudden majesty. She was impressive in all six, although the opening D Major, Op. 23 no. 4 warhorse suffered from muddiness in the repeated bass figures and some uncertain momentum that never reappeared. The audience proved itself ready to applaud for anything rousing, but Wang proved to be more discriminating than her fans. Although she suffered them to applaud between the first three preludes, she then charged into the next three, giving no space for applause, to the point of clipping the final beat in order to ensure continuity. In Wang’s hands, Rachmaninoff remained thrilling, but not always interesting, and the blame there lies with the composer.

Something interesting was certainly going on in the other works in the first half. Scriabin’s Sonata No. 10, Op. 70, came first. This was not exactly deeply intellectual music, but it has an elusive logic to which Wang was finely attuned. It begins, and is dominated by, a three-note motive which generates a dark-colored, flowing sound world until it is interrupted by a spasm of trilling. The trills continue to come, and threaten to take over, but the work does finally re-establish its equilibrium. Wang created an entire menagerie of trills, all rapid, but some which pulsed softly, and some which sounded like hammering metal. Wang’s experience with  Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie may have contributed to a uniquely ringing but almost violent episode of two-handed trills on the high end of the keyboard. Scriabin himself described the trilling as that of “insects,” but in Wang’s hands they became brilliant, even heroic beasts whose ecstasy threatens to engulf. One wanted to hear it immediately after it ended to trace the contrasts again, to grasp more confidently the structure that Wang disclosed. Scriabin, who can be a little diffuse and mystical, held no unsolvable mysteries for Yuja Wang.

In Three Études by György Ligeti, performer and composer met as equals. All three of the Études she chose demand constant cascades of rapid notes, each of which was put to use in the service of a different kind of musical production. Étude no. 3, “Touches bloquées,” creates a gapped and rhythmically uneven texture out of constant streams of notes by having the pianist hold down keys with one hand while playing over them with the other: the held-down keys make no additional sound when struck again, of course. This makes for a minor spectacle at the end, where one hand continues relentlessly to prowl a section of keyboard, but almost no pitches sound. Étude No. 9, “Vertige” uses constant descending scales to create a sound world that begins as a limpid downward slide before turning into near hysteria. Ligeti here employed the same range of attack Scriabin used to make individual characters out of trills to transform scales from calming to threatening. Finally, the Étude no. 1, “Désordre,” conjures up layers of rhythmically complex melodies — one wants to call them “dances” because of their pounding quality, but no human could find a single beat to focus on — out of an almost undifferentiable mass of constant sound. Wang’s incredibly rapid mind allowed her to make complex, multilayered arguments while playing at the far reaches of technical possibility. It was thrilling. The Ligeti provided the one place where Wang seemed challenged, and she rose to the challenge brilliantly. Even the memorization of the music challenged her; to Wang played from score only for the Ligeti. The challenge these Études, say, from those of the “Hammerklavier.” Wang’s gift, it seems to me, is in making quick decisions, strong choices, and creating clarity out of chaos. It makes one think there must be other contemporary works that would benefit from her attention. Is it entirely insane to imagine what a Wang performance of, say, the Boulez Second Sonata, might sound like?

Robert Torres photo from the concert

For me, at least, the second half’s “major work,” the Prokofiev Sonata No. 8, was a disappointment. It did what it was supposed to do, Wang’s energy did not flag, and the final Vivace produced the requisite shouts and bravos and standing ovation , but I found Prokofiev’s mixture of slant pastorale and anguished outbursts in the opening movement unmoving, despite the pianist’s exertions. The slightly sour, somewhat sentimental Andante sognando was unexpectedly touching, though, Wang’s exquisite voicing of dissonance keeping the work piquant, her soft, caressing touch at the end leaving the music on the edge of evaporation.

As is her wont, Wang provided a handful of encores: A Mendelssohn Song without Words, some more Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, the Liszt/Schubert “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and the Gluck Melodie. Wang’s generosity with encores is admirable, but there’s something a little transactional about it, each new parcel of easily consumed virtuosity given after another round of shouting and standing. That said, the Melodie was simply gorgeous, the Mendelssohn ingratiating, and Gretchen volcanic. And as for the other thing people expect from a Yuja Wang concert: yes, in the second half she wore rose-gold sequined number that produced a kind of strangled chortle from the audience, and the way she walked in her astonishingly stimulating stiletto-platform shoes suggested someone who might be having a little back pain. But someone who plays like this can dress however the hell she wants.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.


12 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A spot-on revue of this concert. For me the high points were the Scriabin and especially the Ligeti. Ms. Wang did seem a bit low-energy at the start, but halfway through the Rachmaninoff pieces the sound turned lush, romantic and complex. I had the impression that the extravagant enthusiasm from the audience gradually revived her and in the second half she looked to be really enjoying herself. (I blame Prokofiev for any shortcomings in that sonata, not Ms. Wang.) The encores seemed to be small, tasty desserts she was offering us. And I couldn’t agree more with your last sentence.

    Comment by Leon Golub — May 12, 2018 at 5:45 pm


    Comment by TERRY DEAL BAER — May 13, 2018 at 7:16 am

  3. Very good review. Although I’m only a hack at the piano, it stemmed like the Steinway couldn’t keep up with her opening bit of Rachmaninoff. From an engineering standpoint it takes longer for low frequencies to establish themselves. The low notes just couldn’t keep up with her.

    I was looking for a review in the Globe but couldn’t find one, then I remembered this site and searched Google.

    Why don’t more people talk about this fantastic blog? !

    Thank you for the review,


    Question, was the photographer I saw at the concert from this website? Why did you reverse the yellow dress picture? You didn’t black out the reverse lettering on the piano, “nway,” though that’s not how I know it was done. If your going to mess with a photo, go all the way.

    One of her encores from the concert is on YouTube. It claims her copyright and SiMon. Doesn’t look legit. If you search for “Yuja Wang Mendelssohn Songs Without Words Op 67 No 2 (SiMon)” you will find it.

    Can you make this page a bit more friendlier to Android? I can’t see the edges of this window. It doesn’t word wrap to the window size, and the page doesn’t fit. I can’t see the edges of the webpage.

    Comment by David Gordon — May 13, 2018 at 11:00 am

  4. David Gordon: “One of her encores from the concert is on YouTube. It claims her copyright and SiMon. Doesn’t look legit. If you search for “Yuja Wang Mendelssohn Songs Without Words Op 67 No 2 (SiMon)” you will find it.”

    As it happens, the YouTube clip is legit. It was recorded on Friday night at Jordan Hall by SiMon, who was sitting with his teensy mics in the first row. Thanks for finding and sharing this clip, David, which captures one of the “small, tasty desserts” she offered us (nice, Leon!).

    After Yuja started to get acclimated and energized midway through the Rachmaninoff set, I found myself more and more compelled, dazzled, stunned by her playing. The trajectory of this arc continued for me through the Scriabin 10th, where she achieved marvellously veiled sonorities via preternatural touch and an unusually prolific resort to the una corda pedal. The mists burned off as her blazing, climactic two-handed trills transported one to the edge of the composer’s feverish vision: an orgy of copulating insects.

    I felt myself elevated to a very different kind of ecstasy in the next set, as each of the three György Ligeti’s Études proceeded to bend and rearrange my cerebral hemisphers, culminating in the ineffable exultations of ‘Désordre”s ringing ivory left hand ascensions through thickets of right-handed ebony. For me and my crown chakra this was the crowning achievement of a remarkable recital.

    It is no great rebuke to Prokofiev that his often stirring 8th Sonata couldn’t sustain anything like this level of shuddering transport in this listener. Among the many consolations, though – besides her 2nd half dazzlewear, which sure strangled MY chortle! – were a generous spread of breathtaking encores both serene (Song Without Words) and maniacal (Precipitato from the Prokofiev 7th), ending with the pacific balm of Glück/Sgambati. True, each offering did involve another transaction between audience and artist, but I felt glad to spend, and Yuja seemed glad to dispense.

    Great review from Brian Schuth, and interesting comments all, save TD Baer. Really, Terry, there’s absolutely nothing ‘diaphonous’ or ‘daffodil’ about All Caps…

    Comment by nimitta — May 13, 2018 at 5:18 pm

  5. While Yuja’s dresses may be sexy, the dress designer is a con artist. Just read the investigation by CBC News on Rosemarie Umetsu. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation just reported she scammed many victims since 2004 and never returned the money owed. These are not just accusations, these are judgements by the Ontario Superior Court. She has also been convicted by the Ontario Ministry of Labour numerous times. Yuja’s dresses may well be made by poor workers and students who never got paid. It’s horrible Yuja supports con artist!

    Comment by Chris — May 13, 2018 at 6:24 pm

  6. from a flower site on the web, so surely true:

    China: The daffodil symbolizes good fortune in Chinese culture. In fact, it is so esteemed for its ability to bring forth positive things that it is the official symbol of the Chinese New year.

    Comment by david moran — May 13, 2018 at 7:56 pm

  7. The opening piece was Prelude opus 23-5, not 23-4 as printed. I believe there some other deviations in the Rachmaninov group.

    Comment by Joel Stein — May 13, 2018 at 8:51 pm

  8. By the way, to judge by the funny photo spin, her wardrobe wasn’t the only thing Yuja swapped out: her instrument seems to have morphed from STEINWAY to (BECH)STEIN.

    Comment by nimitta — May 15, 2018 at 11:03 am

  9. Not only has the piano been turned around and relabeled, but Yuja has moved her bracelet from her right to her left wrist. In addition, her left foot is firmly on the left pedal. This is suspicious. It wasn’t an Una Corda kind of evening.

    Comment by SamWa — May 15, 2018 at 1:17 pm

  10. glad to know some of our readers aren’t lysdexic

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 15, 2018 at 7:10 pm

  11. I wasn’t going to comment again, but this really is a mystery. The second photo (from the first half of the concert) does seem to be flipped left-right. Everything is reversed EXCEPT the name on the piano. How is that possible? It should have read “NIETS”. Intentional processing seems to be the only explanation. (Her gown was a paler yellow, but it really is the same concert based on the many other details.)

    Comment by Leon Golub — May 16, 2018 at 9:24 am

  12. ah, sweet mysteries of life

    Comment by F Lee Eiseman — May 16, 2018 at 3:09 pm

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