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Controlled Pyrotechnics

February 12, 2008

Although Yuja Wang's recital program Sunday at Herbst Theatre was not the longest I have heard, it was definitely one of the more technically demanding and emotionally intense. The 20-year-old virtuoso played three sonatas in a row: Liszt’s monumental B minor; Scriabin’s Sonata-Fantasia, Op. 19; and Bartók’s Sonata from 1926. These were followed by Ravel’s finger-breaking arrangement of his orchestral work La Valse, and were bookended by the dizzying pyrotechnics of Ligeti’s two études at the beginning, and Rachmaninov-Cziffra’s insanely difficult transcription of The Flight of the Bumblebee (Rimsky-Korsakov) as a concluding encore and a little finishing touch.
Most of this potentially thorny program was delivered with remarkable ease and unfailing charm. From the opening crystalline twirls of Ligeti's études, Wang put the audience under her spell with her controlled, precise pianism, which was both warm and richly colored.

I can't say, however, that everything she played was equally spellbinding. The Liszt sonata is always problematic, not only because it's so difficult to play, but also because of its sprawling dimensions. In his determination to solve "the problem of sonata after Beethoven," Liszt conflated several movements into one, creating a cross between a fantasy and a sonata that persists uninterruptedly for 30 minutes. The architectonics here are mind-boggling for the performer and taxing for the listener.

Eduard Hanslick, the most influential music critic of his time, said in 1881 on hearing the sonata: "Anyone who has heard this and finds it beautiful is beyond help." When the 20-year-old Brahms visited Liszt for the first time, the maestro treated the young colleague to an impromptu performance of his newly composed Grand Sonata. Brahms fell asleep halfway through Liszt's performance, which, needless to say, did little to help the aspiring composer establish a friendly relationship with Liszt.
Risky Tempos
Wang took risks with this sonata, both fearlessly accelerating the fast episodes and, conversely, stretching out the slow sections. The former paid off, the latter did not. The awe-inspiring faster tempos cranked up the excitement, and the fugue was particularly gripping. The lyrical moments, however, seemed almost too long and too numerous. Wang's tone colors were beguiling and the textures were lucid, but the melody was articulated so delicately that it became anemic.

Unfortunately, it's the intensity of the melodic line that should drive the slow sections forward, never allowing the music to turn static (although I didn't fall asleep, of course). Even in Wang's first encore, a piano arrangement of Gluck's Melody, the "melody" (as such) felt rather pale. Her reading of Ravel's La Valse was marked by an infectious dancing lilt and a myriad of tone colors, but I really wanted to reach for a volume knob just to boost the melody level.

Playing Scriabin is always fraught with danger. There is a special Scriabin spirit that appears only in an atmosphere of exaltation and impulsiveness, even explosiveness. It requires an extraordinary, mesmeric delivery, with a special tone quality, pulse, and rhetorical verve. One French music critic, enthralled by Scriabin's performance in Paris, said the composer was "all nerve and a holy flame." Without these qualities, Scriabin's music ceases to be unique and becomes merely pleasant. And that was exactly what I heard in this concert: a perfectly pleasant Sonata-Fantasia.

The Bartók sonata, by contrast, was absolutely stunning. Influenced by the Liszt sonata, it is one of Bartók's most difficult and physically demanding pieces for solo piano. Under Wang's hands, the contrapuntal lines were sharply etched, the biting rhythms intoxicating, the tone incisive. And Wang displayed yet another facet of her immense talent: a sharp sense of humor, now witty, now sardonic.

San Francisco Performances introduced an exceptionally gifted debutant, and the sooner it brings Yuja Wang back to San Francisco, the better.

Anatole Leikin is Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published in various musicological journals and essay collections worldwide and recorded piano works of Scriabin, Chopin, and Cope. His critically acclaimed books The Performing Style of Alexander Scriabin and The Mystery of Chopin's Préludes were recently published by Ashgate Publishing (UK) and reissued by Routledge (UK). Dr. Leikin also serves as an editor for The Complete Chopin — A New Critical Edition (Peters, UK).