Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Review: Yuja Wang, Shanghai Quartet

Nov. 12, University of Richmond

The Shanghai Quartet doesn’t usually play as an opening act and backup band, but the group may have to reconcile itself to those roles when performing with the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang.

Wang is the most spectacularly and comprehensively gifted pianist since . . . God knows who and when. Her technique is both awesome and flawless, her ear for piano sonority and color unerring. She projects a pianissimo as forcefully as a fortissimo, and everything in between, and doesn’t exaggerate or misplace any dynamic level. When she plays at speed, her fingers literally blur. Her phrasing is as natural as breathing. She has produced a tasteful arrangement from Gluck’s "Dance of the Blessed Spirits," improving on Wilhelm Kempff’s. Even her posture is beyond reproach. She is 20, and looks maybe 14.

Appearing with the Shanghai during a two-day window between trips to Latin America, Wang played Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor, Ravel’s "La Valse" and four encore pieces, including her Gluck arrangement, Vladimir Horowitz’s " ‘Carmen’ Variations" from the Bizet opera, György Cziffra’s arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Flight of the Bumblebee" and Mozart’s "Rondo alla Turca" as "paraphrased" by the pianist Volodos. Then she joined the Shanghai in Schumann’s Piano Quintet.

Those selections embrace most every sound a pianist would be expected to make, short of tinkering with its innards or playing cluster chords, and I didn’t hear a sound to fault, an imbalance to correct or, more importantly, a lapse in musicality. (Other than choosing to play the Mozart mosh – let’s chalk that up to Wang being 20 and not reading five stars on YouTube as a warning sign.)

Scriabin’s "Sonata-Fantasy" is an homage to Chopin; a crossbreeding of those two musical personalities is a highly volatile mix. Wang did justice to both in a performance that sustained dreamy lyricism through a succession of expressive outbursts and jagged harmonizations.

The enormous bass sonorities she produced in the Scriabin returned in the Ravel, but the most striking feature of her reading of "La Valse" was its clarity. In the hands of most pianists, this piece is marked by splashes of notes and smears of tone color. Wang played it with the fine articulation and careful proportion that pianists strive for in Mozart, yet she did so without sacrificing any of this music’s ominously surging power or woozy humor.

Schumann, of course, was a pianist – some accuse him of writing piano music regardless of his scores’ instrumentation – and his Piano Quintet can be a precarious balancing act between keyboard and strings. Wang played her part emphatically, but never crowded the Shanghai. The string players, in turn, were at their most expressively assertive and tonally voluptuous.

The foursome opened the program with Beethoven’s "Harp" Quartet (No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 74), perhaps the most quirkily adventurous of his middle-period quartets. The Shanghai emphasized its tonal surprises, sudden twists and dynamic contrasts while maintaining a generally plummy tone and high but not hyper energy level. Solo voices rising from the ensemble, which are plentiful in this piece, were rendered with special sensitivity.