Who would have guessed that Yuja Wang's recital programme – kept under wraps until recent days on the Southbank Centre's website – would take us from Beethoven to Kapustin via Schoenberg, Ligeti and more? This unpredictability added to palpable excitement in a packed Royal Festival Hall, and while Wang more than delivered virtuosic fireworks, she gave so much more in her wide-ranging programme, showing phenomenal artistry and focus in well over two hours of performance.

Yuja Wang
© Julia Wesely

Wang eased her way into the monumental programme (and that’s without the nine encores!) with Beethoven. While the Piano Sonata in E flat major Op.31 no.3 is mostly jocular in mood, it certainly isn’t a light opener and, aside from a slightly muddy opening, Wang settled into precise articulation and percussive energy. The slow movement was graciously simple, and the finale playfully quickfire. So far, so good, if not exceptional. Her Schoenberg that followed was, however, a revelation, with opening bite and edge followed by some remarkably delicate and intricate details, particularly in the higher registers, as well as expressively poised, placed chords and rapid fire jerky rhythms. But if you could describe Schoenberg’s Suite as a warm up act, then surely the two Ligeti Etudes were the main show of the first half. In the bell-like constant textures and cascading rainfall of Automne à Varsovie, Wang was into her astonishingly virtuosic stride, with hands at full stretch to either end of the keyboard. Yet it was her dynamic control that also impressed here, with some remarkably quiet playing, contrasting with the crashing tumble which ends the piece. L’escalier du diable, with its racing up and down motion, frequent hand-crossing and crashing bells, seemed effortless, and allowed Wang to demonstrate power too in its diabolic, thundering chords.

Scriabin’s deep, soul-searching Piano Sonata no. 3 in F sharp minor, with its chromatic lines and turbulent mood allowed Wang to open up expressively, and straight away we were plunged into the composer’s “whirlpool of suffering and strife”. Yet again, Wang’s dynamic control was impressive, with barely audible pianissimos expressing heartfelt longing. She brought out the constant shifts between urgent anxiety and wistful tenderness, with some especially soft focus singing lines in the third movement, before throwing her whole body into the turbulent, writhing waves of the finale. Another gear change for the complexities of expression demanded by Albéniz, with the melodies thrust into the middle of the texture in both Málaga and Lavapiés from Iberia. Despite the cascades of virtuosic display going on around this, Wang still brought those melodies through with great delicacy. The jazzy tinges of the second of these pieces led appropriately to Nikolai Kapustin, and some laid back blues with rocking tremolos in the Jazz Prelude no. 11, followed by driving energy and weighty power in no. 10 to close her programme.

And then to the encores – a recital programme in itself. Full disclosure – a train to catch meant I could only enjoy four of the nine, with dazzlingly rapid repetition in Glass followed by a crazy arrangement of the Badinerie from Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite. There was a moment of calm in Brahms’ Intermezzo, Op.117 no.3 – the recital was dedicated to Radu Lupu, who died this week, whose Brahms was masterly – with an incredibly quiet centre, and languorous pausing between the sections. And then there was some joyful swing in Marquez’s Danzón. At this point, both Wang and her delighted audience were clearly on a roll, but it was time for me to depart, so I missed the Prokofiev, Bizet/Horowitz, Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Gluck (!) which followed, no doubt delighting her enthusiastic audience to the very end.