Superstar pianist Yuja Wang has been in the public eye since she was 19, wowing audiences with finger dexterity and extraordinary touch, making her performances both explosively exciting and emotionally satisfying. That she has poise and style, perhaps inherited from her ballet dancer mother, is the icing on the cake for her fans.
In his review this week in SFCV, Steven Winn nailed down the artistry that makes Yuja special: “No one, in this listener’s experience, can generate the roof-raising power from a Steinway that she does. It’s at once thrilling and a little alarming to witness … But even at her mightiest triple fortissimos, Yuja didn’t simply summon volume from the instrument. Her big sounds had depth, clarity, and purpose … And when the storm clouds parted, the soloist’s touch turned playful and feathery. Runs skipped and capered as if on air. Trills in the high treble were so swift and steady they brought a hovering hummingbird to mind.”
That “alarming” power is partially a trick of the mind. Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev were both 6 feet, 3 inches tall, with long fingers and massive reach. How, you wonder, is the comparatively smaller Yuja able to produce that power? How is it that the concertos of those two composer/ pianists are at the center of Yuja’s repertory, along with similarly thunderous works from the late 19th century? There’s a disappointingly simple answer to this: She’s strong, and because she’s loose, not stiff at the piano, she can transmit power from her upper body to her wrists and fingers without losing control. But there’s also an artistic answer: Yuja is fearless in performance and approaches big pieces by letting everything go and just committing to the moment. I’d say that that’s why she has millions of fans. Like a great actor, she brings us along by never breaking character. Some of her interpretive choices may be risky, but that’s what we love, the enormous energy she gives to the performance that feeds both her and us.
So if you’re not a totally committed fan who will scoop up every bit of Yujaiana the moment it hits the market, where would you begin to listen to this artist? Here are a few of her best recordings.
On a Chilly Factory Floor, Yuja Wang’s Piano Sizzles
NPR Field Recordings, Feb. 20, 2014
NPR took the then 27-year-old pianist to the huge, open-floor plan Steinway & Sons factory in Astoria Queens where they recorded her playing Sergei Prokofiev’s Toccata in D Minor, op. 11. The motoric rhythms and angular, unsentimental themes are perfect for showing off the always astonishing speed of Yuja’s playing. And she does this in the chilling temperatures of an unheated factory floor in winter.
Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, DG 2011
Yuja's first concerto album was made with one of her conductor-mentors, who she still speaks of reverently in interviews. The smaller orchestra turns out to be a wonderful partner for the pianist. Amazingly, the pieces — the Piano Concerto No. 2 and the constantly recorded Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, sound fresh in these interpretations and Yuja gives the big tunes passion, but with a touch of restraint that lets them breathe.
Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, Lionel Bringuier, conductor, DG 2015
Yuja shows French elegance and lightness in Ravel’s two piano concertos, capturing the wit and humor of the Concerto in G Major especially well. Phrasing, inner voices are all rendered with clarity and feather-light trills, and the orchestra, under Lionel Bringuier matches her high spirits.
Rhapsody in Blue
Camerata Salzburg, Lionel Bringuier, conductor, Salzburg Festival, Aug. 12, 2016
Life and music are not a race, and this performance wins the speed derby mainly for the extremely fast tempos of the outer sections of the 24-year-old George Gershwin’s all-time biggest hit. But that sets up an extraordinary variety of tempo and touch in the inner sections that is just as irresistible, in its own way, as the more famous renditions of this piece. In 2019, at the Vienna Philharmonic’s Summer’s Night Concert, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel (and also available on DG) you can hear her doing some of the same interpretive work, but with a few slightly slower tempos, and a larger orchestra.
The Berlin Recital
Although she achieved fame as a concerto soloist, Yuja has made some of her finest artistic statements as a solo recitalist. Deutsche Grammophon released this album with a title that suggests history being made. Time will tell, but this is Yuja’s best-reviewed album to date, it’s filled with brilliant playing of her favorite Russians alongside several of Gyorgi Ligeti’s Etudes. She digs into the finger-busting Etude-tableaux, Op. 33, No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev’s tragic Sonata No. 8 in B Minor. Be aware that there’s also a disc of encores to this concert.
John Adams: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor. DG 2020
So, if one of America’s best composers plays to Yuja Wang’s strengths in a concerto that is backed by the LA Phil and its artist-hero music director, will the results be spectacular? Yup.