sat 13/04/2024

Yuja Wang, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Yuja Wang, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Yuja Wang, Queen Elizabeth Hall

A colourfully percussive recital from the Chinese pianist

Yuja Wang: a pianist that plays with her whole body

Let no one tell you that Chinese pianists can't play with passion. Yuja Wang ran the full gamut of emotions in last night's Queen Elizabeth Hall recital from the tender to the rhapsodic. But mostly she channelled her energies to delivering some of the most colourfully explosive playing I've heard for ages. 

A good deal of excitement comes from the fact that Wang is a pianist that plays with her whole body. One gets as much of a thrill from watching the extraordinary lever activity of her feet, which must navigate pedals and five-inch heels simultaneously, as one can from her spidery hand movements or her swinging arms, which windmill with enormous heft onto the keys. There was theatre in the opening Rachmaninov Étude, Op 36 No 6, as her fingers turned on a dime, morphing from spider to meat cleaver. And there was power to the way she built up Op 36 No 5.

Wang was especially good at guiding Scriabin's meteor showers

Whether she has the same sensitivity for lyricism as she does for colour was explored in the other two Rachmaninov pieces. Both the Étude, Op 39 No 4, and Élégie, Op 3 No 1, rely on the performer spinning a good melodic yarn. Wang offered much of beauty especially in the softer passages but the singing line was frequently either a touch too tinny or lost completely.  

No matter. Her percussive tendencies were able to be put to fantastic use in Beethoven's Sonata in E flat. Rarely have I heard this piece sound so explosive, so extreme. In the first movement Allegro she fired out the sforzandos then, with incredible control, hushed the hunt to return to the opening exercises. An exquisite blanket of dawn fog descends on the second movement scuttling, which is slowly lifted in the slow movement that seems to stretch and yawn the work awake. Ending with a irrepressible rendition of the final movement, Wang was making a very convincing case for a colouristic reading of Beethoven. 

So, after Beethoven that sounded like Scriabin, were we in for some Scriabin that sounded like Beethoven? Not likely. Wang is too impulsive a performer. She was never going to resist indulging the improvisatory quality of the Scriabin Fifth. It was exciting stuff. She was especially good at sculpting Scriabin's digressions - the short passages marked Allegro fantastico - and guiding the meteor showers. The only mistake was made by me. I had stupidly listened to a John Ogden recording of the work just before the concert and kept wishing Wang was Ogden and hoping she'd pay closer attention to the directions and the cross-rhythms where the vertical tensions can be exploited. 

I made the same schoolboy error with the Prokofiev Sixth Sonata, catching a Sviatoslav Richter performance earlier in the day, though I think this time the comparison was more helpful. For it seemed to explain why - though Wang appeared, on the surface, to be doing everything right - I felt she was falling short. Though she nailed a general thuggish atmosphere well, for the first time in the night, I felt that a flashy percussiveness was suffocating meaningful content. And she frequently lost me in a way that Richter never did.

Still, an extremely impressive recital. The packed hall was appreciative. An encore - Horowitz's arrangement of the Gypsy Dance from Bizet's Carmen - came. And we were able for one last time to marvel at her technique: not quite at the Horowitz level yet in the leggiero fingerwork at the top of the keyboard - nowhere was her lyrical immaturity more clear - but without compare when springing about kangaroo-like in octaves.

Wang is without compare when springing about kangaroo-like in octaves

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