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Since the days of Horowitz and Richter, solo piano recitals have flourished in concert halls all over the world. Venues of over 1000 seats would be filled to the brim with people of all ages eager to hear their beloved pianist perform some of the most exquisite masterworks in the piano repertoire. Many leave feeling inspired, some hurriedly return to practice, and others feel a wave of excitement knowing they have witnessed something remarkable. With a program of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti, and Prokofiev, Chinese pianist Yuja Wang truly stepped up to continue in the traditions of her musical ancestors yesterday in her Koerner Hall solo recital.
Ever since she stepped into stardom after replacing Martha Argerich to play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Boston Symphony, her relationship with Russian repertoire has been illustrious. Recordings of her Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev piano concerti have been wildly praised for its technical mastery and artistry. This was highly evident in her performance of the march-like Rachmaninoff Prelude Op. 23 No. 5 in G minor, the stormy Etude-Tableaux Op. 39 No. 1 in C minor, the brooding Etude-Tableaux Op. 33 No. 3 in C minor, the dance-like Etude-Tableaux Op. 39 No. 4 in B minor, the immense Prelude Op. 32 No. 10 in B minor, the fleeting Etude Tableaux Op. 33 No. 5, and finally the tragic Etude Tableaux Op. 39 No. 5.
Despite Rachmaninoff’s mastery of large scale forms like the symphony, his specialty, like Schumann and Chopin, was in capturing characters, a large range of emotions, and images within small forms like preludes, elegies, and etudes. Poised and still, she drew our attention to her fingers and most importantly, the sounds, colours, and beauty of this melancholic and nostalgic music. Fast passages were rendered with precision and grace and climatic sections were built up with such gradual pacing that one constantly felt a long, continuous line throughout her conception of these pieces.
After the Rachmaninoff, she began to explore the breakdown of tonality within 20th century music with Scriabin’s final piano sonata. Impressionistic in colour, enigmatic in character, and dissonant in tonality, Scriabin’s Tenth Piano Sonata, Op. 70 forsakes melody and is bound instead by motifs such as tremelos and trills. Listening to Yuja’s sensitive interpretation of this piece, the listener becomes enthralled by the reverberations of the music and one loses the sense that they are hearing a 9-foot concert grand piano. Keys were struck but one was simply captivated by the atmosphere created by the accumulation of sounds emitted from the piano. It was a breathtaking performance.
Continuing in the path of atonality, Yuja concluded the first half with three etudes by Ligeti. In these etudes, Ligeti dismisses melody, harmony, and even rhythm in the traditional sense. The Etude No. 3 from Book 1 imitates the effect of the ‘blocked keys’ of a piano that has not been maintained in some time. Etude No. 9 from Book 2, called ‘Vertige (Dizziness)’ is a flurry of repeated chromatic scales running against one another in the right and left hand. The evenness of Yuja’s passage work successfully produced the feeling of spiraling down into a black hole. Lastly, Etude No. 1 from Book 1 is another etude where fast polyrhythms displaced one another. On top of that, the left hand music was pentatonic and the right hand was diatonic. A challenging program for both the listener and the performer, it was Yuja’s consistency in pulse, rhythmic integrity, and her sensitivity to colours that allowed the music to flow and move the audience.
Famous for the beautiful gowns she would wear on stage, Yuja changed from a long flowing golden gown for the first half to a turquoise cocktail dress for the Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 8, Op. 84. The last of the three War Sonatas, Prokofiev’s 8th is a lament, reflection, and testament of humanity in the face of tragedy and grief. The seemingly gentle beginning of the first movement masks the underlying horror and eeriness of the desolation left behind by war. Yuja utilized shadings in her dynamics as well as beautiful long phrasing to dictate the rhetoric nature of the first movement. Violent images of bloodshed and disorder were evoked with precision and a strong sense of will from Yuja. The explosive ending of the movement was brought together with conviction and might. Prokofiev contrasts the narrative first movement with a ballet-like second movement. The listener hears a rather elegant and child-like melody. However, as the piece progresses, veiled harmonies of a dissonant nature gradually hint that things are not what they seem. Yuja’s imaginative use of texturing highlighted both the simpler melody and the chromatic harmonies lurking underneath. Yuja then dived straight into the tumultuous Finale. No matter how textured and difficult the writing was, Yuja never lost her poise, her calm, and one witnessed a truly great performer at work. She never produced a harsh sound, yet every accent and pronounced chord had definition and vigour.
The enthusiastic and clamorous applause that followed was rewarded with a total of five encores. Much like Horowitz, Yuja had a collection of effective encores that she played with confidence, bravura, and sensitivity. The Mendelssohn Songs without Words Op. 67 No. 2 was light, crisp, and a delight to hear. The Schubert-Liszt ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ was rendered with a special sensitivity and beauty. One could tell that she really enjoyed giving back to the audience. Following that was the exciting Finale of Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata which, driven by an unceasing rhythmic pulse and gradual climactic ending, had the audience back on their feet. The audience simply would not let her finish and she conceded with a beautiful rendition of the Gluck-Sgambati Melodie from the opera Orfeo and Euridice. Finally, she gave in to one more encore – the famous Variations on a Turkish March. Her own performance combined variations written by Arcadi Volodos and Fazil Say that humoured and wowed the audience.
It’s indeed crystal clear that no technical difficulty on the piano fazes Yuja Wang. It’s also clear that she deserves the international career that she has been enjoying for the past 11 years. I believe it is in her vast array of colours, understanding of textures, incredible poise and grace, conception of structure and line, and her programming that will continue to please, delight, amaze, and inspire audiences for many years to come. With her at the helm, I have no doubt piano concerts will endure as a special event and spectacle.
It was gratifying to know that Yuja Wang will be back next year with cellist Gautier Capuçon in a Koerner Hall series concert on April 13th 2019.
Pianist Yuja Wang; Photo credit: Ian Douglas
Pianist Yuja Wang; Photo credit: Norbert Kniet
Yuja Wang delights, amazes and inspires audience in her Koerner Hall recital!
Review by Christopher Au
Toronto ON May 14th 2018