Yuja Wang is all about rhythm. It would be easy to write about how her playing doesn’t have the profundity or architectural sense of more mature artists, but that would be to miss her considerable achievements – and with a young artist, it’s what’s achieved that should count. Jaw-dropping technical skill is unexceptional among pianists of Wang’s age, especially others in the first rank like Benjamin Grosvenor, Daniil Trifonov, and Khatia Buniatishvili. What distinguishes Wang from those three and a raft of others are her rhythmic forcefulness, the orchestral colours she garners from her Steinway, and her aggression at the keyboard. Underneath the virtuosity – and of that there is so much that her hands simply disappear in a whirl of speed – there is a quickly developing artist capable of emotional depth and a rare stillness in quieter, slower music, one who rightly resists the temptation to play Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven in public too early. Wang’s is very much young person’s pianism, but it’s so full of sass that it’s hard not to be convinced.

Yuja Wang, courtesy Shuman Associates
Yuja Wang, courtesy Shuman Associates

This programme was right in the middle of Wang’s comfort zone: turn-of-the-century works with reflective passages, free structures, and bombastic climaxes. Scriabin and Rachmaninov suit her talents particularly well. It’s good to see her introducing less common repertoire into a predominantly late-Romantic concert diet, too. Here the oddest and darkest of Scriabin’s works and Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles were gems among more predictable sonatas and showpieces, even if something with a little lighter texture might have been welcome to break up the flow of surging, shadowy thickness.

Rarely do piano recitals opening with thumps down low on the keyboard from the pianist’s fists. Liebermann’s Gargoyles was written in 1989, when he was around the same age as Wang is now, and it suits her completely. The opening Presto is full of rhythmic punch and drive, and gave Wang ample opportunity to show off her surprising power. The serenity she would bring to Scriabin was prefaced in the slow movement, and Ravel’s La Valse – the last work on the programme – had its origins in the ripples of the third. Smacking octaves came with a devil-may-care impetus in the finale, with mind-bending cross rhythms emerging through ferocious torrents of notes.

There was much more to linger over in Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata, in which the extreme virtuosity required sits oddly against an almost entirely ambivalent mood. Rhythm again was the centre of Wang’s attention, even in counterpoint: there weren’t melodies intertwining, but note lengths crunching and jarring. Phrasing took its shape not from a cantabile line, but from rhythmic insistence. There were times here when Wang seemed caught between interpretive minds, even more so than the piece suggests. Nonetheless, the slow movement was echt-Rachmaninov, Wang finding just the right balance between distance and sorrow, and judging her heavily rolled chords and smooth transitions with subtlety even if the tempo was so slow and disjunctive that the music threatened to break apart. And the vehement finale was violently destructive, without ever quite resolving Rachmaninov’s tensions.

The most often heard of Scriabin’s ten sonatas paired the one even the composer himself never played to open the second half. Both are questions that seem not to find answers across their half-sonata, half-fantasy structures. The Sixth Sonata is a gloomy work, sketched in silhouettes, always in the penumbra. Here Wang might have probed much further into the recesses, keeping things there rather than periodically sparking into life. But the Sonata-Fantasie has long been a calling card for Wang, and one instantly heard why in the longer first movement. Orchestral colourings, delicacy, and surety of touch drifted over a dreamy, shape-shifting wave, as interjections punctured its moonlit soundscape. If the sharpest edges had worn away by the second movement, Wang seemed to invest its upward expansions with a soaring hope.

Ravel’s portrait of imperial Vienna on the edge rounded things off, its mists of a piece with so much of the music heard in this recital. Playful hints and intimations suggested Wang has a more you-shall-go-to-the-ball view of the work than is perhaps just, but when delivered with such outstanding accuracy and verve cavils seem less than appropriate. And if rhythm was the focus of the evening, how satisfying it seemed when the triple-time waltz broke down in an orgy of glissandi.

Five encores followed, each throatily demanded and bashfully granted. They were Rachmaninov’s early Elegie (Op. 3 no. 1), Prokofiev’s Toccata (Op. 11), Vladimir Horowitz’s Carmen Variations, Chopin’s C sharp minor Waltz (Op. 64 no. 2), and finally Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, D. 118.