The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Second album shows pianist Yuja Wang’s flawless fingers need more serious music to play

June 7, 2010
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

About six weeks ago, the 22-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang released her second album, “Transformation,” for Deutsche Grammophon.

Wang, you may recall, made a big splash a year ago with her critically acclaimed debut album “Sonatas and Etudes” that featured big romantic works: Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata, Liszt’s Sonata in B minor and Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G minor as well as some fiendishly hard Ligeti etudes.

That album was deservedly nominated for a Grammy, though it didn’t win one.

Now comes the follow-up. And it offers much more proof that Wang is a find, a big find with a big future. Especially now that DG has lost its two top Chinese pianists, the best-selling Lang Lang and Yundi Li (now known as Yundi). And it’s good to remember that there are now more piano students in China that in America or Western Europe or maybe both combined.

Here she discusses her new album:

So, here is another knuckle-busting album that shows Wang has technique to spare and then some. My guess is that her only serious rival for who can play more notes faster and cleaner is Marc-Andre Hamelin, the so-called “super-virtuoso.”

You begin to wonder if Wang is even capable of hitting a wrong note.

Still, I am impressed more with the piano playing than I am with the music-making, which is nonetheless impressive.

Why?

Repertoire, in a word. Too much of its seems like competition fare, designed to impress more than express.

Make no mistake. Wang’s tone is outstanding. Her taste is excellent. Her dynamics are carefully chosen and flawlessly executed. And here and there you get to hear some wonderful subtlety and musicality, especially in the Brahms variations.

But I would still like to hear first-rate talent in first-rate music. And most of this music is not first-rate.

Frankly, for my taste the two most interesting pieces on the CD are two lovely and well-played Scarlatti sonatas — you can find more of her Scarlatti on YouTube — that she wedges, in an appealingly original and unusual sense of recital programming, between big monster pieces.

She opens with Stravinsky’s upbeat and energetic “Petrushka Suite,’ that the composer arranged for Arthur Rubinstein. Then comes Scarlatti’s “Cortege” Sonata in E major that Horowitz loved. Then the two books of Brahms’ “Paganini” Variations,” which one pianist described to me as “almost as hard to listen to as to play.” Then comes another soulful Scarlatti sonata in an amply lyrical but restrained reading. Ravel’s own transcription for piano “La Valse” wraps things up.

Clearly, the aim is to wow the listener and to demonstrate virtuosity. All of the big pieces are impressive and showy. Not too many pianist can make scales sound like glissandos and make finger-twisters sound easy.

But too little of this high-octane music has the kind of depth that allows us to glimpse Wang’s inner musical self and to what it means to her.

Where is the Bach? The Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn sonatas? The big and small Schubert works? The smaller Chopin pieces? The challenging Schumann suites? The intimate Brahms? Debussy’s impressionistic masterpieces? Or even Ravel’s better works like the “Miroirs” or “Le Tombeau de Couperin” or “Valses nobles and sentimentales”?

This is certainly a disc that many piano fans will want to have in their libraries. I certainly do. Pianism just doesn’t come better.

And it is more proof that Wang, who was born in Bejing, China and then trained in Canada and then the US at the Curtis Institute under Gary Graffman, is well on her way to a major career.

I especially like her aesthetic of recording recitals rather than genres.

Still, I want to her something deep come out of her. I suspect she has depths, but I want to see them – or, rather, hear them – more evident.

But maybe her next album can focus less on flash and more on substance, and she can show me what I only know suspect.

If you don’t know much about Wang, here are some ear-opening impressive samples of her playing:

Here she is at 13 or so playing a difficult Chopin Etude, Op. 10, Np. 4, in C-sharp minor:

Want a wow’em encore? Her she is in Georgy Cziffra’s transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee”:

Clearly, from childhood on, she played with confidence and talent.

I’d like to know what other readers and listeners — both pianists and non-pianists – think of Yuja Wang in general?

And of this particular CD?

And I would especially like to hear from people who have heard her live, since all kinds of magic can take place in the recording studio and engineering booth.

The Ear wants to hear.


Posted in Classical music

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