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Friday, October 21, 2011

Concert Review: She Wore Blue Velvet

Yuja Wang makes her Carnegie Hall debut.
Fingers that can hammer or sing: the astounding Yuja Wang.
Photo by Felix Broede © 2011 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music.
Thursday night at Carnegie Hall saw the New York debut of Yuja Wang, the 24 Beijing-born sensation and darling of the Deutsche Grammophon label. Judging from this flawlessly played recital and its long string of encores, the hype surrounding this 24-year-old pianist is (so far) entirely justified.

For her debut, Ms. Wang chose a challenging program: five short pieces by Scriabin, Prokoviev's Sixth Piano Sonata, and the Liszt Sonata in B Minor. Taking the stage in four-inch platform heels and a long, body-hugging gown with a slit down one leg, Ms. Wang sat down at the Steinway, adjusted her shoes to the pedals, and went to work.

The five Scriabin pieces are not well known to listeners. One, the Prelude in B Minor (Op. 13, No. 6) made its Carnegie debut along with Ms. Wang. These are early examples of this composer's work, without the tonal weirdness and "mystic chords." That came later.

She played these works as a suite, alternating slow, diaphanous movements with dark, hard-charging movements that snarled like hell-hounds straining at the leash. Alternating between playing from the wrist and driving from the shoulders, she seemed to pour her personal energy into the three Preludes, the Etude and the Poeme, making them function as a unit.

Prokofiev's Sixth Sonata was next, a piece written in 1940 as World War II raged. Although it was composed and premiered before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, the first movement opens with a staccato alarm call that jolts the listener and prepares them for the sonic battle to come. 

Prokofiev's industrial-strength writing, with its grim, creaking waltz and apocalyptic finish (with a return of that alarm call) places considerable demands on the pianist. Ms. Wang took a gutsy approach to this rock-ribbed music, meeting the work's challenges head-on and playing with steely resolve.

Ms. Wang returned, (this time in a blue velvet gown) to play Franz Liszt's mammoth one-movement Sonata in B Minor, a composition that turned the very form on its head and showed the way forward to the chromaticism of Wagner. In fact, you can hear themes later borrowed for the Ring in the pages of this thirty-minute work, including the 12-step descending scale that indicated the power of Wotan's spear.

Liszt's Sonata draws its inspiration from Goethe. Ms. Wang dived into the opening theme (a representation of Mephistopheles) and brought the wild energy of Faust's ill-fated adventures out in the early pages. The plunge into the abyss was chilling, ending in grim, matter-of-fact low notes. But that set the stage for redemption and a heavenly ascent, played as a shifting, soothing balm by this brilliant artist. 

With the audience roaring its approval, it was time for encores. Ms. Wang obliged with four. She started with more Liszt: the Hungarian's transcription of Schubert's Gretchen am spinnerade. The centerpiece was her own transcription of Paul Dukas' famous tone poem The Sorcerer's Apprentice. She made the brooms march with astonishing speed, bringing out Dukas' rich tone paintings in this unconventional, but brilliant transcription. She followed with the Melodie from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Friedrich Cziffra's jaw-dropping take on Johann Strauss' Trisch-Trasch Polka, ended the evening with both substance and flash.

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