Intimacy and brilliant showmanship were equally on show at the Barbican, courtesy of the creative powerhouse that is Yuja Wang. In a programme that mostly consisted of showy, but intense and mostly off the beaten track works, the audience could not fail to be engrossed and indeed thrilled throughout.

Yuja Wang © Ian Douglas
Yuja Wang
© Ian Douglas

The evening kicked off with a triumphant bang, with Rachmaninov’s second most famous solo piano piece, the Prelude in G minor, Op.23 no. 5. Here Wang laid out her trademark technical brilliance and romantic sensibility. This was further illustrated in the six short Rachmaninov pieces that followed, particularly notable was the rarefied sweetness she achieved in the B minor prelude, Op.32 no. 4.

And otherworldly sweetness was the name of the game in Scriabin’s Sonata no. 10 that followed. This is the last of that composer’s great series of works in the genre and is the most subtle and beautiful of the set. Its beauties are hidden in half lights and wisps of colour though and the subtle atmosphere is hard to achieve. Wang clearly understood this world and found the ideal balance between the extreme pianissimos and the complex fluttering trills that go nowhere. The piece, in her interpretation, seemed suspended in some eerie place outside of reality, existing for a moment then fading into nothingness.  

The three Ligeti Etudes that wound up the long first half of the concert showed the most extrovert side of the soloist. Each piece rages with technical challenges, involving phenomenal finger work and rhythmic complexity. The third piece Désordre quite simply requires superhuman technique and precision and it got it here with knobs on.

After this bombardment, the gentle opening of the Piano Sonata no. 8 in B flat by Prokofiev seemed a bit of anti-climax, but of course this simplicity is only an illusion and the main thrust of the movement is forceful and tragic in tone. Written during the dark days of the war, it is one of the composer's most profound utterances. Wang had the measure of the complex form of the first movement, grading the intensity to perfection. In the strange minuet-like Andante sognando middle movement she miraculously created the atmosphere of a world of formality tipped ever so slightly over the edge... or perhaps tipsy, drowning itself in its sorrows. In the finale the fireworks were, of course, handled without any strain and in the slow central section, touchingly recalling earlier themes, her touch was particularly refined. The final explosive coda reached heights of excitement and controlled power that I have rarely heard in a live performance.

But the evening wasn’t over yet. Seven encores followed, further demonstrating Wang’s facility in every department of performing technique. After hardly acknowledging the existence of the audience throughout the main part of the concert, she seemed reluctant to leave them. Highlights were the limpid beauty of the Mendelssohn Song Without Words, the ferocity of Prokofiev's Toccata, a will-o'-the-wisp Chopin waltz and the Precipitato third movement from Prokofiev's Piano Sonata no. 7, which unbelievably capped everything that had gone before in terms of energy and drive. A truly remarkable display from a musical giant.

*****