Musical worlds coalesce and diverge in Wang’s Carnegie recital

Sat May 11, 2024 at 3:10 pm
Yuja Wang performed works by Messiaen, Scriabin and Chopin Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee.

If Yuja Wang’s intention for the first half of her Carnegie Hall recital Friday night was to show the kinship among the styles of Messiaen, Scriabin and Debussy, she succeeded almost too well. Her distinctive stage presence and approach to the instrument—which the capacity audience, spilling onto the stage, had come to experience—threatened at times to take precedence over mere composers.

A recognizable persona is one of the hardest things for an individual artist to establish, and Wang has it in spades. It starts with her very au courant fashion sense, of course, but proceeds directly to the piano bench, where her erect posture and uncanny composure while performing jaw-dropping keyboard feats set her apart.

It includes a flair for dramatic contrast and a feeling of nervous energy that hums under even the quietest passages, like a Ferrari idling in the driveway. It also includes a keen sense of the inner working of a piece, and the ability to communicate it through voicing and coloration.

As with all artist-virtuosi, Wang has given performances where inspiration flagged and the fabulous machine took over. On Friday, however, she seemed fully engaged with each piece on the program, and if they all came out a little Wang-ized, well, that’s what we came for, isn’t it?

Wang’s recital audiences have also learned to expect a curveball or two in terms of the announced program. To begin with, no program notes were supplied on Friday night, Wang apparently having decided (along with Rudolf Serkin, who also eschewed program notes) that her performance would tell you all you needed to know about the music.

A note in the booklet described the program as “subject to change”—another Wang hallmark. And indeed, the pianist altered the order of the pieces as printed, including the four Chopin ballades in the program’s second half. As on previous occasions, this was not a problem, even a little stimulating, for piano aficionados, but it surely left many listeners in the dark about what they were hearing.

If one is going to dip into Messiaen’s vast Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus for a couple of movements, “Le baiser de L’Enfant-Jésus” (The Kiss of the Child Jesus) and “Regard de l’esprit de joie” (Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy) at least make a complementary pair. Wang’s superb chord voicing and free adagio tempo brought a Debussy-like languor to the former, while the latter was an explosion of cosmic boogie-woogie.

Wang’s program finger pointed at Debussy next, in a performance of L’isle Joyeuse that adjusted the piece’s balance between classical dance and eroticism well to the sensual side. The lush sonorities also brought some blurring of details, and the pianist didn’t entirely resist the urge to rush the piece’s ecstatic last pages.

Arriving at last at Scriabin’s Sonata No. 8, Op. 66, Wang continued her emphasis on soft focus in the quiet opening bars, then let the composer’s volatile thoughts bubble up naturally from the instrument. The layered texture of wide-ranging chords, arpeggios and trills, which in some passages requires three or four staves to notate instead of the usual two, sounded marvelously spacious and transparent in Wang’s rendering.

Photo: Chris Lee

This pianist’s uncanny ability to inhabit the mind of Frédéric Chopin has shown itself on many occasions, so the opportunity to hear her perform the composer’s four ballades was not to be missed. Although performing these independent pieces as a group is a symptom of the completism brought on by CD collectors, there is enough variety in the four pieces that doing so needn’t weary the ear.

And then there’s Wang reordering them on the fly, departing from chronology to start with the F major Ballade, Op. 38, and proceeding to the A-flat major, Op. 47, before getting around to the G minor, Op. 23. (The F minor, Op. 52. mightiest of the four, concluded the group, as it must.)

The soft, hazy opening of the F major, pulsing gently in 6/8 meter, echoed the beginnings of the Messiaen and Scriabin earlier in the program—the calm before the storm, if you will. The slight liberty with the long-short rhythm became excessive later, when it came back forte, the note values almost equalized. But of course Wang fired off the Presto con fuoco sections convincingly.

The cheerful A-flat major Ballade also featured themes in a rocking 6/8, which Wang waltzed elegantly as the music opened into broad vistas, darkened only briefly by a passing storm. Rhythmic steadiness served her well during the piece’s final crescendo into brilliant sunshine.

The G minor Ballade’s opening question and suspenseful first theme portended darker dramas to come. The tenderness of the second theme and the impetuous forte climaxes were vintage Wang, but not to excess. The performance was superbly paced, noting all the turning points in the story, large and small; even the catastrophic presto coda was eloquent, more than a mere rush of notes.

The soft chiming that opened the F minor Ballade mirrored earlier moments in the program. Wang unfolded the drama with the grandeur and long arc that sets this ballade apart from the others, expanding splendidly into the first theme’s contrapuntal development. She played the tender second theme with a vulnerability that heightened the tragic resonance of the piece’s fiery conclusion.

This stunning finish to an impressive recital brought whooping applause, followed by four encores, all selected from Wang’s wow-factor shelf: a furiously waltzing Prelude and buzzing Fugue in D-flat Major by Shostakovich; a catchy Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, transcribed by Alejandro Gómez-Tagle; Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Beautiful Blue Danube,” in György Cziffra’s uber-fizzy arrangement; and Wang’s own madcap fantasy on the scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony. 

Carnegie Hall presents pianist Yevgeny Kissin in works by Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Prokofiev 8 p.m. May 24.

2 Responses to “Musical worlds coalesce and diverge in Wang’s Carnegie recital”

  1. Posted May 12, 2024 at 4:09 pm by Walter Tyza

    Saw her at the sold out Gillmore Piano Festival in Kalamazoo Michigan two nights previous to the Carnegie gig. She was amazing. The entire recital had the audience totally captivated especially the four Ballades. The audience went wild at the conclusion with hollering and whistling. She performed five pyrotechnic encores. It was a WOW performance!!

  2. Posted May 18, 2024 at 11:24 pm by Mark Banning

    What a great way to experience Carnegie Hall for the first time. It was fantastic!

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