Yuja shows familiar flash but a lack of depth in Carnegie recital

Sun May 15, 2016 at 1:43 pm

Yuja Wang performed a recital Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.

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?

13 Responses to “Yuja shows familiar flash but a lack of depth in Carnegie recital”

  1. Posted May 15, 2016 at 6:34 pm by David

    Watched it on medici.

    One did not get the sense of her being an artist with something to say, but of a fantastically talented student who played the music just as her teacher had instructed her to and without any personal connection to it.

    Who else, other than one who sees the hammerklavier as just another way to entertain an audience could follow it up with cheap thrill encores.

    However, it’s wonderful that she’s attracting new audiences and introducing them to great music.

  2. Posted May 15, 2016 at 11:53 pm by Denio Charvet

    I agree that Yuja was out of her element in these pieces though of course I wish I could play them even a tenth as good as she does! From reading various interviews online and questions about her not playing any Beethoven where she simply said she wasn’t ready yet. I get the feeling that Yuja was trying to prove something by playing these very serious, profound and complicated pieces with colossal structures that are very hard to convey to an audience. If she wanted to prove that she was a serious Beethovenian she shouldn’t have chosen the most difficult sonata to prove that with. One of the early ones like #7 in D major 0r #15 Pastoral or the lively #18 in Eb, heck even the Waldstein would have been more suitable at this point.

    The Schumann Kreisleriana is a very tough piece to interpret, it’s very long as well. Better the Carnival or the Symphonic Variations which are already in her repertoire. The Brahms was actually quite beautiful to my ears what bothered me was that she only played the first two Ballades and left out the last two which really complete the set and make a much better impression as they are definitely all 4 supposed to be played together. Would have loved to have heard the gorgeous 4th Ballade in Yuja’s hands, oh well. I guess there wasn’t enough time. Would have gladly heard a few less encores if that was the case.

    Speaking of encores she should have just played the Schubert/Liszt, the Gluck Melodie and maybe the Chopin Waltz. Tossing in the Carmen Variations and the crazy Turkish March after playing the Hammerklavier seemed very out of place. Actually if you’re going to play an encore after the Hammerklavier a Bach Sarabande would be very nice or even Schumann’s lovely Arabesque.

    I think if Yuja wants to explore the more serious Germanic rep she should take her time, it may turn out that is doesn’t totally fit her musical personality and that’s fine, there’s plenty of repertoire that does and she should stick with music that does.

  3. Posted May 16, 2016 at 1:19 am by Tom Kottmeier

    Interesting comments: I heard her play in Santa Barbara on May 2, the same program (different encores). I felt her Schumann was disjointed, and not focused, lacking the clarity that Martha Argerich brings to it. The accents in the first movement were actually, I felt, wrong: I listened to the Carnegie Hall performance and found the same, felt really odd.

    Here, however, the Hammerklavier was superb: the depth she plumbed in the Adagio were breathtaking, nuance upon nuance, and I truly felt the presence of Beethoven in the hall: could not,in my view, have been played better. Since first listening to her I wondered when she was going to get into deeper material, and here it was… marvellous!

  4. Posted May 16, 2016 at 12:40 pm by joop vasbinder

    i wasn’t at the recital, living in Holland, but I witnessed it on the computer at medici.tv. I must say I am very surprised by the comment I just read and do totally disagree.
    I thoroughly enjoied the first ballad and relistened it at least 4 times so far, found it profound, inviting and making me calm insite. An impressif moment of pain reducing after the death of my partner.

    I am not a particular fan of Robert Schuman but I came a lot closer thanks to her performance of the Kreisleriana and I got intrigued enough to order and read the texts by E.T.A Hofffmann.
    and finally Beethoven: I must admit I didn’t know well this sonate so far but I have the score of all his sonatas, can play in a very lousy way some of the easier ones (lousy pianist, just playing for myself) and had listened to prepare myself for this recital to the interpretation of Svjatoslav Richter and Barenboim, reading the score but it was only listening to Yuja Wang that the greatness, specially of the final part became clear like a gothic casthedral.

    I have tickets for the recital she’ll give in Amsterdam in june, have heard her also the last time when she gave a recital in my country and am looking forward to this event, even after having taking notice of your comment, that in my opinion doesnt give her the credits she deserves.

    I must say the public was very disturbingly loud present but that to didn’t seem to bother her that much.

    just for your information: I am 75, and since my youth addicted to classical music; for decades my great iconic pianist was Kristian Zimermann and I am very happy that this, still so young pianist, with all her personnal approach for me is, with a quite different repertoire, a new shining light on the crowded firmament of the pianistic firmament.

    Joop Vasbinder

  5. Posted May 16, 2016 at 7:05 pm by Brady Pyeatt

    It is interesting that the reviewer at the New York Times went to the same concert and had almost the inverse take on the concert. He liked the meat of the program but objected to the flashy encores. Anyone who hadn’t been to the concert would be very confused as to what went on if they read both reviews back to back, as I did.

    Fortunately I was able to watch this concert on Medici.tv, so I already had my own opinion of the performance, which was very favorable.

  6. Posted May 16, 2016 at 7:22 pm by Joe Payrych

    I have a comment: where exactly was this reviewer on Sat night? He certainly wasn’t at Carnegie, based on this review……..

  7. Posted May 17, 2016 at 12:04 am by Sallie

    I cannot disagree more with this review. I attended this concert on Saturday night and thought that Yuja Wang was simply amazing. Is no pianist allowed to interpret the piece in a different way? Her playing was electrifying, the audience went nuts, was on their feet demanding five encores.

  8. Posted May 17, 2016 at 1:11 am by Jack Peters

    I disagree with this review. I think Yuja demonstrated her mastery of her craft. No one could do better!

  9. Posted May 18, 2016 at 12:12 pm by C. Pettaway

    How interesting that the reviewer (whom I consider a sophisticated ass) not recognizing the evolution of an artist. How can a 29 soon to be 30 year old artist play like a 69 year old artist. Remember Beethoven was 57 when he died. He had reached the culmination of his life.

    I dare say that at 35 Yuja’s interpretation will be different. Life is an evolving segment of experiences.

    The interviewer wishes to take a snapshot of something which is already extradinary, but wishes to diminish it to very small mindeness.

    You should be fired!!!!!!!!!

  10. Posted May 18, 2016 at 7:48 pm by Jacob Opper

    Perhaps 20 years from now she will show the kind of depth that the “Hammerklavier” requires. This is, after all, “sacred” music.

  11. Posted May 24, 2016 at 7:51 pm by George Scott

    I just wanted to respond to those disappointed by her choice of encores. I and perhaps many other mortals that traveled hundreds of miles for a once in a lifetime experience of this young prodigy appreciated this diversity in the program.

  12. Posted Jun 22, 2016 at 3:24 pm by Larry Diamond

    My wife and I attended Yuja’s Carnegie Hall recital. It was a an exuberant one and yes, she is evolving into a more mature artist gradually. She is going to be a great pianist and it is thrilling to see this evolution. The above criticism is a bit harsh, but she is now in the big leagues and every so often will have her stilletto heels held to the fire. The NY Times critique is more accurate, we feel, yet she cannot be measured against Murray Paria who is 69. We agree that one encore would have been sufficient given the depth and weight of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier.

    We avidly follow Yuja Wangs development as an artist as she is making a strong statement as a woman in a heavily male dominated field and has the talent and genius to succeed. We look forward to seeing her again in Verbier this summer as a chamber player and soloist.

  13. Posted Jan 11, 2017 at 2:58 am by Zuhair bakdoud

    I think she is a fantastic technician. And the bikini she is an insult to the musi she plays and taudience…

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