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?
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.