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City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
July 13, 2015
Few young musicians come trailing such great expectations as pianist Yuja Wang. Still only 28, the Beijing-born, US resident sports a string of award-winning recordings, a reputation for muscular virtuosity at the heavy end of the repertoire and a wardrobe that has captured almost as many headlines as her formidable musicality. Last seen in Perth as an eight-year-old wunderkind (a debut she barely recalls), eager Sydneysiders packed City Recital Hall to see if the goods matched up to the hype. And on this showing, they certainly did. Yuja Wang possesses the 'wow' factor in spades – and then some.
To begin with, her opening was quite remarkable. Clad in a shimmering silver gown with train – which drew a gasp all of its own – Wang arranged herself elegantly at the piano and gently raised a single arm before caressing the keys in a relaxed, beautifully free reading of an early Scriabin Prelude for the left hand. An exquisite, spine-tingling segue followed as she allowed her right hand to join for one of the roughly contemporaneous Op. 11 Preludes – an utterly magical moment. All gossamer and melancholy, this was playing of such rare delicacy that for me it would have been worth the ticket price alone. Wang’s Scriabin, particularly in these early works has a Chopinesque romanticism, helped by the wistful keys of C Sharp Minor and F Sharp Minor. Then, leaning into her instrument (as if daring it to sound too soon), she embarked on the pensive, moody B Minor Fantasy. While she drained every drop of drama from the cup, perhaps the most thrilling moments came with the emotional pullbacks where she caught our collective breaths with a series of astonishing pianissimos.
The combination of strength, passion and instinct for judging rubato makes Yuja Wang an ideal Scriabin interpreter, and the same skills were on display for a penetratingly realised pair of Chopin sonatas. The poetry she brought out in the mighty Third Sonata was most immediately apparent, the lyricism of the first movement winning out over its maestoso marking. Amongst too many moments deserving of praise, I’d have to mention the left-hand ascending runs against the immaculately balanced melody in the right hand – I’m going to have to say “Wow!” The Scherzo flew by, light as a summer breeze with occasional heavy gusts, her interpretation verging on the Impressionistic. The Largo, poised yet profound had a rapt sense of Chopin’s long, long melodic line while the weighty, impassioned Finale (with a scintillating display of right-hand scale work) set the seal of a first half that would be hard to beat.
Chopin’s Second Sonata was treated to a similarly considered, yet organic performance. The opening agitato was perhaps a little driven, losing an ounce of clarity to the acoustic, but it was a deeply felt reading, full of drama and virtuosity where required. Lisztian fireworks in the dark night epitomised the Scherzo with its moonlight-dappled pools relieving the gloom. But perhaps the most outstanding playing was reserved for the famous Funeral March. Wang commenced the almost too familiar rhythmic motif from the stillest of still points, building its heavy tread superbly to achieve a positively Mahlerian intensity before falling back into a reverie for the lovingly-crafted central interlude – a fond private memorial amidst what felt like the public grief for some heroic public figure.
To bring us home, the flickering depravities of Scriabin’s Black Mass Sonata seemed tailor made for Wang in her second half dress of deepest obsidian splashed with orange and yellow tongues of fire. Allowing the music to possess her from the inside out, by the tumultuous ending the pianist gave every impression of having spent the night on the heath suckling at Satan's bosom. Balakirev’s Islamey isn’t a work you hear that often anymore, so as a last hurrah it was a pleasure to be reminded of its numerous felicities via a bravura display of thoroughly Russian romantic pianism.
After such a substantial programme, the pianist could have been forgiven for retiring to the dressing room for a well-earned collapse, but no – back she bounced like a rubber ball and a delighted audience was treated to a whopping four encores including Prokofiev’s blockbuster Toccata, what I think was Fazil Say’s witty Alla Turca Jazz and a seeming channelling of the old wizard himself in a dazzling Horowitz Variations on a Theme from Bizet’s Carmen. It’s not every time by any means that an artist lives up to reputation and hype, but if you want to see one who most definitely does, catch Yuja Wang if you can.