Yuja Wang’s ability to colour her playing at speed is like nothing we’ve heard since Martha Argerich. In Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, Wang is a powerhouse, although some critics miss a certain fullness of tone. On paper she would seem an ideal interpreter of the Ravel G Major and Left Hand concertos, but this turns out not to be the case.
In the G Major, Wang’s mercurial facility is her undoing. While she shapes dynamics and phrasing with skill, her nervous energy overpowers Ravel’s cheeky playfulness in the outer movements. The presto finale is a hectic race to the finishing line, despite her accuracy. As pianism it is absolutely astonishing – but is astonishment a reaction that stands up to repeated listening? Her tendency to press on proves fatal in the exquisite Adagio assai, limpid tone notwithstanding. Listen to Alicia de Larrocha here (Eloquence), and the great Spanish pianist transports you to a totally different, dreamlike world.
In the Left Hand Concerto, a more declamatory piece, Wang’s urgency short-changes Ravel’s tongue-in-cheek grandiosity in the piano’s initial entry. Later, in the remarkable passage where the pianist has to leap back and forth from bass octaves to high chords, Wang plays so nimbly and so fast that the harmonies barely register. The effect is like trying to read passing signs from a speeding train. Again, fluid and expressive though she is in Fauré’s early Ballade (the solo version), this phenomenal pianist simply needs to relax.
Another problem is the live sound. At all dynamic levels the orchestra sounds dull and one-dimensional. Important solo lines are often lost or muddied, and balance-wise the orchestra comes in a distant second. Compare this to the wonderful DG recording with Krystian Zimerman and Pierre Boulez, or the 1958 Michaelangeli recording, where Michaelangeli remains untouchable in the Ravel G Major.