Yuja Wang’s latest recital at Carnegie Hall, which took place Tuesday evening, is best compared to a triple-decker sandwich with very excellent bread and questionable innards. Ms. Wang is known for her intimidating technique: powerful, playful, and superlative. Her energy is at its highest during her showy encores, and her pianism is at its most impressive with virtuosic Russian repertoire. Her extraordinary spring recital at Carnegie featured works by Scriabin and Rachmaninov, and was one of the best piano performances I’ve ever seen. This time around, I was blown away by the Russian bookends of her concert, which were once again some of the strongest playing I’ve witnessed. But her interpretations of three Chopin pieces reminded me that she is still developing as an artist. After all, she’s 26 years old.
Ms. Wang kicked off her program with Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no. 3 in A minor, which was the perfect showcase for her amazing technique. She displayed an almost inhuman ability to flit from delicate sections to heavy passages, gleefully hammered out as if it were the most natural activity in the world (rather than one of the most difficult). Her middle piece, falling in between the Chopin works, was the only for which she used a score. Composed in 1984 by Nikolai Kapustin, the Variations for Piano, were described in our program as “what Rachmaninov would have sounded like had he been born Oscar Peterson.” These were variations, sometimes insanely challenging, on Stravinsky’s opening bassoon line from The Rite of Spring. Although at times the piece sounds like something you might hear in the elevator at Macy’s, Ms. Wang delivered a riveting rendition. Her enthusiasm was evident from start to finish. And I was most impressed with her ability to toss off such fine jazz playing in the midst of such an intense program – a feat that not many classical pianists could pull off.
Before the Kapustin, Ms. Wang had drifted through Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 3 in B minor. When she able to reign everything in, we were then able to glimpse remarkable possibilities, hinting at the type of pianist she will become. But for the most part, the playing lacked the sensitivity and clarity that Chopin requires. Chords were thrown away – for instance, the closing of the second movement and some of the lower sequences in the first – and notes seemed to be getting lost as her hands glossed and skimmed the keys. Melodies were muddled during the third movement, and the notes, though precise, seemed to be running away from her, blurring into a tone that was artful if occasionally flimsy. This held true for the Chopin pieces that followed the Kapustin, the Nocturne in C minor, and the Ballade no. 3 in A flat major. At its best, the ballade evokes waves lapping on the sides of boats floating in the water, but here there were no waves, just notes. Both pieces contained some nice phrasing and imaginative moments, but for the most part sounded slightly restrained, as if she were impatient to get back to the flashier stuff.
Which is why it was an excellent choice to round off the evening with Three Movements from Pétrouchka, the strongest part of the recital. Stravinsky’s arrangement of one of his most popular ballets is rhythmically challenging to say the least. But Ms. Wang can be jazzy, or virtuosic, or playful – she can even be an entire orchestra. Her flurrying fingers effortlessly called forth the snowy swirls of the Shrovetide Fair and the bizarre story of the puppet Pétrouchka that takes place there. The musical narrative was not only dramatic but vigorous and compelling. The ending left me astounded, but I was quickly swept up in Ms. Wang’s frenzy of encores (four this time, including one of her favorite crowd-pleasers, the Carmen Variations, arranged by Horowitz). It’s clear that she loves being onstage, and that audiences in turn love to see her up there. The final encore was one more Chopin, the Waltz in C sharp minor. Her wonderful interpretation of this one proved that she is coming into her own.
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