The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Phenom pianist Yuja Wang plays as sexy as she looks, but her new “Fantasia” CD is more nightmare than dream, and a waste of a major keyboard talent.

April 20, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

As regular readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of pianist Yuja Wang (below). I like her and I like the way she plays – not just the alluring or controversial way she dresses.

No wonder, I say, that at 25  she is in constant demand on the concert circuit and has already been nominated for two Grammys out of the first three CDs she did for Deutsche Grammophon. She is the Real Deal. Just use this blog’s search engine to check out interviews and other posts about her.

Now comes her fourth CD, “Fantasia,” which was released last week.

Just looking at the promising title of this concept album gave me fantasies.

Well, I thought, now we will get to hear Wang is some really great repertoire: maybe a fantasy by Mozart; maybe Schumann’s great Fantasy in C Major or his fabulous “Fantasy Pieces”; maybe one of Beethoven’s two Fantasy Sonatas, Op. 27, including the ‘Moonlight”; maybe Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy; maybe Chopin’s Fantasy in F Minor or Polonaise-Fantasy; maybe Brahms’ set of Op. 116 Fantasies.

But no.

This really is about Fantasia, not fantasy. There is little great music on this CD, which is why I am so disappointed. It is made up of largely encore-like pieces.

True, a very few are terrific works, like Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor, Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s song “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” and the Sgambati transcription of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits.”

But, really, who needs a piano transcription of the Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? It only makes this CD’s title more reminiscent of the Walt Disney cartoon movie “Fantasia” than of the mystical and expansive genre that evolved out of the more formally structured sonata.

Wang plays as sexy as she looks. Her wondrous keyboard skills are evident in abundance. In her four Rachmaninoff pieces (three Etudes Tableaux and an Elegie), she goes go from calm and quiet to thunderously loud in practically no time.

Her single Scarlatti Sonata in G Major, K. 455, shows a wonderful sense of articulation, line and clarity, despite its fast tempo.

And the five early Chopin-like Scriabin preludes and poem, which she used to open her Carnegie Hall debut, show a masterly fluidness and lyricism as well as a refreshing transparency.

Every aspect of her astounding virtuoso technique is in evidence, as is her musicianship.

But why do we get the Bizet-Horowitz “Carmen” Variations, Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre” a la Horowitz and a transcription of Strauss’ “Tritsch-Tratsch” Polka? But do we really need another Horowitz (bel0w)?

Junk food and empty calories may be fun. But they are a terrible thing on which to waste such a major new talent. And this kind of repertoire just plays into the perception of Wang as a beautiful and well-dressed light-weight,more glitz and glamor than substance — which is NOT the case.

This is definitely NOT a CD The Ear will want to put on and listen through, though I occasionally might want to hear a piece or two at a time.

So I am still waiting for the concept album that her consummate skills – and her fans – deserve. I say Let Yuja be Yuja.

In short, The Ear gives this CD an A-plus for pianism and a D-minus for music.

Let’s hope the DG guys in Artists and Repertoire department let Wang do something more substantial in her next outing, though my bets are on the Prokofiev Third Concerto – coupled to a Prokofiev Sonata – which she recently performed and which is perfectly suited to her, as recent reviews proved again:

We’ll see what lies in the future.

In the meantime, stick to her first three CDs – etudes and themes and variations by Ligeti and Brahms plus big sonatas by Chopin and Liszt and concertos by Rachmaninoff — and you won’t go wrong.

What do you think of Yuja Wang and her other recordings?

What do you think of this latest recording?

The Ear wants to hear.

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