Yuja shows familiar flash but a lack of depth in Carnegie recital
Concerts are, to some extent, an expectations game in one way or another: we go to a major venue to hear a leading artist expecting a great performance, and often that bar is met or even exceeded. Or we witness a very fine performance that stands out all the more for being by someone we’ve scarcely heard of.
The least pleasant of all worlds has to be the experience of disappointment from the performers from whom we expect the most. Over the past several years, it has been a thrill to watch the continued development of Yuja Wang, who has shed her reputation as a flashy technician and demonstrated herself to be a sensitive musician of real substance. It was surprising, then, to hear her on Saturday at Carnegie Hall, in her most mature recital program to date, sound so far out of her element.
The first two of Brahms’s Op. 10 Ballades provided just the first example of what would become a recurring problem throughout Wang’s recital: chronic over-pedaling. While some judicious blurring can help give color to a piece, Wang’s heavy foot seemed here to be more of a tic, fussing with textures without finding much in the way of meaningful expression. Neither Ballade showed much specificity of intention, giving instead a broadly generic account of the music without a strong feel for its style or significance.
There was a more virtuosic feel that one often hears in her rendering of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, yet Wang still relied too heavily on her pedaling, her playing often feeling rote. For all the fire with which she ended the third movement, there was no focus in it, so that it took on the shape of general bluster. There were moments throughout of superb playing–the last movement was marked by striking contrasts between passion and playful coyness, but even these felt like momentary effects rather than elements of a complete interpretation.
Most perplexing of all was her take on Beethoven’s magisterial “Hammerklavier” Sonata. In the early going it was quite impressive, a truly majestic majestic opening followed by extraordinary freedom in her interpretation of the rest of the first movement. Wang’s fingerwork at times felt a little drowsy, a problem that carried over into her Scherzo, and kept it from ever approaching its requisite crispness.
As so often before, Wang’s account of the pensive Adagio sostenuto showed moments of superb playing–her delicate touch floated shining tones out of the piano, and individual phrases were sublimely crafted. What she lacked, though was the ruminative Beethovenian spirit of the music—the romantic preciousness with which she shaped the movement would have been more suited to a Chopin nocturne. The finale showed plenty of determination in the “Allegro risoluto,” but more excessive pedaling and sluggish fingerwork muddied what ought to have been a crystal-clear fugue.
A different pianist, it seemed, emerged for the curtain calls. Wang tossed off all of her usual encores, and they were brilliant: the Gretchen am Spinnrade transcription had the perfect combination of Schubertian sensitivity and Lisztian bombast. Arcadi Volodos’s cheeky riff on Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca elicited laughter at every witty turn and the Horowitz “Carmen” Variations were accomplished with supreme flair. Where was this self-assured, limpid playing on the rest of the program?