It’s hard to ignore Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, and sometimes for the wrong reasons: the controversy about That Dress (a daringly short designer frock paired with killer heels) ruffled some feathers amongst traditional classical music critics and concertgoers, and provoked a healthy debate about concert attire. Then there is the famous “flying fingers” clip on YouTube of her playing an arrangement of “Flight of the Bumblebee” (a piece she has lately distanced herself from), or her standing in for other pianists (most notably Radu Lupu and Martha Argerich) at a moment’s notice, and still pulling off a coruscating performance. Not to mention rave reviews of her performances and recordings... So it was that I went to hear her in the Southbank Centre’s excellent International Piano Series with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.
In many ways the programme, an ambitious mix of Russian heavyweights (Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev) seemed the perfect vehicle for Ms. Wang’s much-lauded technical prowess, but this performance was not just about flying fingers and athletic leaps around the keyboard. In fact, there were moments of melting tenderness in her shaping of melodic lines and colouristic shadings, particularly in the Rachmaninov Élégie and the third movement of the Prokofiev sonata, a recitative quality to the slow movement of the Beethoven sonata, and shimmerings and scurryings in the Scriabin. Sometimes her fortes and fortissimos were too strident, and occasionally a delicate singing tone was tinny rather than cantabile, but overall this was an exciting and absorbing recital.
Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux Op. 39 are demanding works, imposing on the performer a daunting array of physical challenges, combined with interpretative complexities (although the title means “study pictures” Rachmaninov did not reveal what images he had in mind, preferring to leave that to the performer, and the audience). No. 6 was played with energy and dexterity, with deep wolf-like growls in the piano’s lower registers. No. 4 was sprightly, rhythmic, and folksy, while no. 5 was moody, and powerfully symphonic in its textures. All three had the effect, for me, of evoking the vastness of the Russian landscape. The Élégie was rich, unashamedly romantic, Ms. Wang highlighting the beauty of the soaring melody.
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 13, like its better-known sibling no. 14 (the “Moonlight”), is marked “Quasi una Fantasia” (“like a fantasy”) and while its construction is highly classical, its overall mood and scheme seems far more forward-looking, with passages suggesting extemporisation, rapid mood-swings, and contrasting fluctuations of dynamics and articulation. Ms. Wang brought a percussive quality to the work, which resulted in a performance of unexpectedly convincing drama and excitement, suffused with wit and humour too.
The Scriabin was sexy, sensuous and jazzy, less a sonata, more a stream of musical consciousness with its exploration of the tonal and colouristic possibilities of the piano, daring and unusual harmonic and dynamic shifts, and blurring of the boundaries of structure. The closing notes were tossed out in a gesture of pure bravado, and Ms. Wang stood to bow while their sound still resonated around the hall.
The second half was occupied by the Prokofiev Sonata no. 6, and for it Ms. Wang chose to change from a slinky midnight blue gown to a striking crimson dress. For me, the Prokofiev was the least successful work of the evening. Ms. Wang’s percussive attack was too aggressive, often resulting in a harsh tone. However, the Allegretto had an enjoyably playful swagger, and the slow movement, a plaintive waltz, shared the sensuousness and rhapsody of the Scriabin.
The encore was Horowitz’s transcription of the Gypsy Dance from Bizet's Carmen, which allowed us to revel in Ms. Wang’s technique, but again some of the lyricism and singing qualities of were lost at the expense of her athletic fingerwork.