With the appearance of Chinese sensation Yuja Wang, the College of Charleston’s consistently rewarding International Piano Series ended its season with a fantastic flourish at the Sottile last Tuesday.
I cut my piano recital teeth over fifty years ago in Vienna, Austria – where the world’s very greatest keyboard artists have appeared regularly for centuries. Yet I recall hearing very few pianista there (or anywhere else) who inspired in me the kind of awe, wonder and excitement that this miraculous 22-year-old generated, right here in Charleston.
Wang warmed up her fingers and audience alike with a set of Domenico Scarlatti’s compact keyboard sonatas, drawn from the more than 500 he wrote. Four numbers were listed, but I caught only three: all among the best-known. She made them sparkle and sing – offering chiseled, crystalline clarity plus gracious emotional warmth.
Then it was on to the almost Olympian feat of playing both books of Johannes Brahms’ fiendish Variations on a Theme of Paganini: a finger-twisting series of 28 piano “studies” (or études) that stand as the most terrifyingly difficult and complex piano works he ever produced (Brahms’ friends called them his “witchcraft variations”). Playing them complete is something like performing both books of Frédéric Chopin’s own pioneering études in the same concert.
In piece after piece, Wang delivered these works with jaw-dropping virtuosity plus glowing Brahmsian style and spirit. Her fingers were often a blur – but the notes surely didn’t sound that way, as she negotiated the composer’s fearsome hand-leaps, glittering octaves, skittering fingerwork and massive chord-piles with dead-on accuracy and total assurance. She managed faster tempos than I’ve ever heard before in some of these pieces (even in the best recordings of the work).
The lovely Ms. Wang – a rather small and delicate woman with tiny hands – still managed to deliver a seemingly impossible level of power and forcefulness. Her slashing, rock-solid left hand built pounding, granitic foundations to her renditions, while propelling them forward with kinetic rhythmic drive. Yet she duly conveyed sweet lyricism and diaphanous softness where called for.
After intermission, she returned to bring us the evening’s warhorse: Chopin’s famous “funeral march” sonata (his second of three). But Wang managed to spin this familiar musical tale in arresting new ways that made the music sound almost new to me. She switched musical moods on a dime in the first two movements – largely thought to represent life’s peaks and valleys; our demons and our spiritual cores. She made the tricky transitions between the music’s stormy tension and its moments of honeyed sweetness sound entirely natural.
Then, in the final two movements, she brought us Chopin’s musical view of death, beginning with the funeral march. Thank goodness, she took it at a faster tempo than most (some plodding pianists tend to put you to sleep here) – but it lost none of its inherent gloom and tragic drive under her hands (except in the glowing central section). She brought uncanny speed and precision to the very brief finale’s febrile flurry of notes, evoking cold, ghostly “winds blowing over the grave.”
As if one near-impossible technical challenge (the Brahms) weren’t enough, Wang brought her ambitious program to a slam-bang finish with Three Movements from Petrushka, which Igor Stravinsky arranged for solo piano from his smash-hit ballet score. It’s an often percussive, hard-driving tour-de-force that demands tremendous technique, power and endurance. And the way Wang played it, you’d never think her fragile-looking fingers could stand up to such self-abuse. She made the lighter passages sparkle and shine, but you simply wouldn’t believe the raw, pile-driving power and rhythmic intensity she produced in the heavier sections.
She brought the house down with it. Our raucous standing O inspired a fantastic encore: legendary super-pianist György Cziffra’s stupendous transcription of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s Flight of the Bumblebee (like Vladimir Horowitz, Cziffra delighted in writing piano transcriptions that hardly anybody else could play). I wasn’t the only one in attendance who wondered how fingers could possibly move that fast.
As exciting as her recital was, Wang’s performances lacked only one quality: the kinds of interpretive depth and profundity that dig deeply into the seasoned listener’s heart and soul. Her cool, detached stage presence often matched her musical impression. Thus her playing never quite generated that mystical connection between performer and audience that only full artistic maturity can bring.
But we shouldn’t expect that from her at this stage of her career. Even the most lavishly gifted young artists must be allowed room to grow – and Wang still has a lot of living ahead of her. She’s already got all the other tools she needs to achieve greatness … so let’s just give her some time.