Yuja Wang: The Berlin Recital
‘Exceptional artistry, technical perfection and boundless imagination’ it says on the back cover. Such hype normally puts my back up. But on this occasion I’ll happily endorse it.
To start, as Yuja Wang does, with one of the most well-flogged warhorses in the repertoire, in the shape of the Rachmaninov G minor Prelude, would seem to be asking for trouble, and her opening bars do flirt with sensationalism by giving so much so soon. But that would be to underestimate her exceptional resources of dynamics, tone and accent. Similarly, her rubato in the middle section is strikingly pliant; yet it never breaks the broad line, and the layering of the texture is superbly orchestral, while the reprise shows her ability to give sharp profile to her phrasing at either dynamic extreme.
In the first of her two C minor Études-tableaux she is as tempestuous and temperamental as the music demands: some might even say more than it demands. But she never loses her head, and her colours are original without being wilful. As the slower Étude-tableau demonstrates, her ‘boundless imagination’ is equally evident in her pedalling, and in both the B minor Prelude and Scriabin’s Sonata No 10 she moves smoothly between feathery, evocative touches and maximum eruptive volatility.
The three Ligeti Études are supreme tests of pianistic colouring as well as intellectual agility, and here too Wang offers a tour de force of quasi-orchestral detail. I have not carried out a forensic-level comparison with Aimard but the general impression he gives is certainly more strenuous and less streamlined.
Prokofiev’s Sonata No 8 demands a longer-range grasp of drama, and here too Wang rises to the challenge. Again her weighting of the component parts of every texture is a marvel to behold, and this in turn enables the outer movements to fly rather than merely to bludgeon, as they sometimes do. Occasionally a slight left-before-right desynchronisation helps her along, which I can imagine some finding a little mannered, especially in the Andante sognando slow movement, where her rubato also arguably detracts more than it adds. To rival Richter’s classic, though admittedly more drily recorded and plain-speaking, 1962 account would require some reining-in of her instinct to seduce and dazzle by sonoristic means, and a transfer of that energy into more probing for philosophical depth. On the other hand, Prokofiev’s innate exhibitionism is undeniably done full justice, while the finale’s crucial ‘irresolute’ reminiscence of the first movement also rings emotionally true. The uber-exuberant last pages provoke a torrent of applause that is as fully earned as the hype accompanying the disc.
Anyone hitherto more put off than drawn in by Yuja Wang’s glamorous image may have to do some rethinking in the light of this recital. Fabulous piano sound, too: to capture large-hall, high-impact playing such as this without compromise or distortion is an achievement in itself.