Thursday, February 14, 2008

Review: Yuja Wang

Feb. 13, University of Richmond

Yuja Wang is mortal after all.

The 20-year-old Chinese pianist, who performed in Richmond with the Shanghai Quartet in November and stunned the audience with her virtuosity and musicianship, showed some flaws – not grievous, but significant ones – in a return engagement.

Wang, booked on short notice to replace an indisposed Piotr Anderszewski, played the most demanding parts (on herself and on listeners) of the solo repertory she has presented in recent tour performances – fibrously complex etudes by György Ligeti, the massive Liszt Sonata in B minor and the abruptly expressive, sonically jangling Bartók Sonata (1926), with lyrical but still energized interludes in Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor and Rachmaninoff’s arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream" music, topped off by the Prokofiev Toccata.

Not surprisingly, given the scope of that program, the sheer quantity of notes and often colossal demands on technique, Wang sounded thoroughly juiced on nervous energy. Outside the Chopin, she rarely produced a truly singing tone; and, except in the Mendelssohn, didn’t offer much range of dynamic contrast. It was a brilliant display of pianisim. It was also a feeding frenzy.

The Liszt suffered the most from Wang’s evident inability to relax and go with the musical flow. She pounced on the sonata’s big chords and grand gestures, but seemed impatient and emotionally detached in its lyrical passages, especially in the central section of the piece. Only toward the end did she connect with the heart, as well as the stormy rhetoric, of this music.

Nervy propulsiveness similarly intruded on her readings of Ligeti’s Etude No. 10 ("The Sorcerer’s Apprentice"), whose whimsical character was lost in the rush, and the middle movement of the Bartók, in which she emphasized pesante (heavy) over sostenuto (sustained, smooth), coming across as brittle.

Wang was most fully engaged, and showed the most engaging side of her musical personality, in dance-inspired pieces – the Chopin and Mendelssohn, the first movement of the Bartók – and in the rhythmically driven Prokofiev and Ligeti Etude No. 4 ("Fanfares").

In her November appearance, Wang seemed to have it all. This time, she showed she has a great deal, but still has some growing to do.