IN: Reviews

Keyboard Fireworks for Newport Classical


Joyce Yang dazzled the Breakers on Saturday night with fire and power in an engaging selection of Russian piano favorites beginning with selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, op. 37a. She kept her hands close to the keyboard in the opening January movement subtitled By the Fireside and marked Moderato simplice ma espressivo in a visually compact manner that matched her warm and expressive melody―straight-forward but lyrical, and without excess, followed by close and rapid passagework of the most delicate, wispy and velvety textures. The first theme returns, and the movement closes with ppp arpeggiated passages up to the most sublime final chords in the highest registers. February followed with a lively Russian folk carnival dance where again compact yet stunning technical agility presents itself, yet never draws attention to itself, as the listener is transformed and transported over time and place into Tchaikovsky’s world of Russian winters and village fairs. As this was not a complete performance of the work, she skipped some months, and the lack of printed movement titles required one to consult the extended narrative in the handout to learn that April, May and June came in succession. The famous June – Barcarolle again came to us straightforwardly without sentimentality, in a quicker tempo than one normally hears; this gave more cohesion to the movement rather than drawing attention to its parts. Yang’s selection closed with the highly spirited August – Harvest. Though briefly bemoaning the missing months, we were soon to be elevated by treasures yet to come.

Indeed, the second course again laid out another partial set, three of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s exquisite preludes, chosen seemingly at random. Yang opened with the B Minor Opus 32, No. 10, a sad and lonely melody, with restless undertones, and Rachmaninoff’s famously tolling bells in the bass. The tempo seemed rather slow at first, but this gave Yang the opportunity to build in intensity and emotion into a sound panoply evocative of the great canvas by Arnold Böcklin “The Return or The Homecoming. It is, of course, well known that Rachmaninoff often pined for his native Georgia when he was away from it, hence the sense of sadness and loss which Yang nurtured so effectively. This piece, a favorite of the composer, was followed by the G-sharp Minor No. 12 of the same opus, a favorite of this writer. Through its Oriental melodic flavorings and arpeggiated passagework, No. 12 suggests wild horses running through the Steppes. The final offering of this set came from Opus 23, the intimate and soulful D Major No. 4, a work much earlier than the others. Again, though one was left wanting more of this beautiful and sublime music, further surprises awaited.

After a brief explanation Yang launched into Guido Agosti’s transcription of movements from Stravinsky’s Firebird. Best known as an orchestral suite, Firebird of course debuted for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1910. The orchestral suite fuses all the movements into a single symphonic entity, not unlike a tone poem. By contrast, Agosti’s transcribed only the three final movements, Dance Infernal, Berceuse et Finale. Thus, instead of the mysterious introduction, the set opened with a loud crashing dissonant chord, and a huge display of power, technical virtuosity, and sound. Yang modestly described the score as “challenging for the pianist,” but it is a feat of the highest magnitude, requiring not only superlative technique, but an abundance of energy and stamina.

Whereas the orchestra softens some of the most dissonant aspects, the percussive piano makes them far more sharp, angular, and heightens their presence. It should be noted that Agosti studied with Busoni, himself a great writer of piano transcriptions and a friend of Liszt, who perhaps is the master of all transcribers. Liszt frequently wrote his orchestral works in versions for two pianos, and that Debussy sat with Stravinsky for a two-piano version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. To hear these pieces from a different perspective gives an even greater understanding and appreciation of them.

Yang’s colorations evoked orchestral sound, textures, yet her formidable and most impressive technique served the music while transporting us into enthralling, and well-colored sound worlds.  Her gift for deliciously pregnant pauses is breathtaking, allowing her to shape and build from deep interior recesses to explosive and fiery climax, creating incredibly vast sound palettes and grand dramaturgy on the 9ft. Yamaha. Nowhere was this more evident than in the second half offering of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The various iterations of the Promenade served as gentle transitions into the vivid imagery of the ‘pictures,’ the piano vividly juxtaposing dark with light. Alternately playful and somber, the gallery journey culminated in a Great Gate of Kiev marked with a lyricism and poignancy which nevertheless managed to magnify into a majestic close.

As a final desert treat, Yang’s take on the Andante from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, Opus 54, better known as Nocturne, delivered those cascading idyllic waterfalls and bird calls in a most gentle closing note. Newport Classical has more such memorable treats in store for the next three weeks. For a full schedule click HERE.  

Ed. Note: We have corrected the name of the pianist.

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, RI and teaches at Rhode Island College.

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