Last night, Yuja Wang, the sensational Chinese pianist, played a recital in Carnegie Hall. The auditorium was packed, including with people on the stage. This is known, in some quarters, as “spillover seating.”
For years, I’ve commented on what Miss Wang wears (stripper-wear). Some people don’t like it when I do this. If you’re one of them, click off now, please. As long as she is dressing this way, I will comment on it. Yuja wants a reaction, obviously. And I oblige!
You remember I Dream of Jeannie? Well, Wang’s outfit was like Jeannie’s, if Jeannie were a stripper. When the pianist walked out, there was nervous laughter in the audience, as always (and, as always, it was mainly from women).
Wang opened with a Rachmaninoff set, which began with the Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5. An interesting choice. Usually, this prelude closes a set, or the first half of a recital, or the recital itself. Alternatively, it is an encore. How interesting to open a recital with it.
Uncharacteristically, Wang was muddy. She had trouble with articulation. Also, she rather bulled her way through the prelude, missing its puckishness, its scherzo-like quality. It occurred to me that Wang, seasoned and superb as she is, was nervous.
Similarly poor was the Etude-tableau in B minor, Op. 39, No. 4. It was muddy and without its impishness.
But how about the set at large? Well, Yuja was Yuja. She can do anything, technically, with those wet-spaghetti arms, hands, and fingers. There is no tightness to hinder her. Her fluidity is incredible. She also has an excellent sense of line—the musical line—committing no ungainly accents.
The Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 10, ought to express longing. It did. Yet, at the outset, Wang’s sound was thin, as she played on top of the keys. Also, the prelude must build, unbearably, and Wang did a pretty good job of it—yet she got poundy.
After her Rachmaninoff set, she played a Scriabin sonata, his last, No. 10, Op. 70. Horowitz taught us this piece, many years ago. Let me lodge a complaint about Wang’s piano, i.e., her soft playing. Often, it’s soft to a fault. I would like more a carrying piano, and a piano with body. In the sonata, Wang was guilty of a certain monotony of tone. Also, when Horowitz played it—this is an unfair remark, surely—there was an undercurrent of craziness. I missed this in Wang’s account.
But, Yuja being Yuja, she did some marvelous things. For example, she is a great triller—one of the results of her wet spaghetti (for tightness is a trill-killer).
At some point in the sonata, there was a disturbance in the audience. A cellphone went off, playing bird chirps and the like. It went on for a while. This was an eerie accompaniment to an already-eerie piece.
Before the next piece began, a Carnegie Hall stagehand came out, to prepare the piano. One thing he did was put up the rack and place music on it (in the form of a computer notebook). I was thinking: “Is this stagehand the richest person in the hall, apart from a Henry Kravis or two?”
Wang played three études of György Ligeti, a composer who is right up her alley. He requires nimbleness, finesse, which she has in spades. The liquid quality of her playing is, again, incredible.
Okay, brace yourself for another sartorial note. For the second half of the program, Wang shed her Jeannie-stripper number for a short-short, up-to-here green number.
And she played a Prokofiev sonata, No. 8 in B flat, Op. 84. Let me complain once more about her piano: it was too mousey to be a genuine piano. But Wang played the first movement intelligently and logically. And beautifully. She was dreamy, as she worked the composer’s chromaticism. She brought out the melody in the left hand impressively. And this most fluid of pianists can summon some Prokofievian percussiveness when she wants to.
Incidentally, you hear Cinderella throughout the first movement of this sonata. Google tells me that Prokofiev was working on that ballet at about the same time.
Wang was dreamy in the first movement, but the second movement is actually marked that way: Andante sognando (a dreaming andante). From Wang, the music was a song, inward. In the last movement, Vivace, I would have liked more of a madcap joy. The playing was a little plain for me. But, in the final pages, Wang was utterly committed, and passionate, and she deserved the roars that followed.
Then came the “second concert,” to borrow an old phrase: a slew of encores. Wang played her usual. Outstanding was the Horowitz Carmen Variations. It had more flair and accuracy than ever, and Wang knew it: she broke into a big smile afterward (not necessarily characteristic). “Tea for Two,” in the Art Tatum version, was never better. It really swung, from this Chinese woman. No one can tell me that music isn’t universal (or that the essentials of man aren’t).
The Precipitato from Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 was crazy-fast, far too fast—and yet undeniably exciting. With Mozart’s Rondo alla turca, Wang does something interesting: she combines the Fazil Say arrangement (jazzy) with the Arcadi Volodos arrangement (magisterial). Last night, she absolutely slew it.
She ended the evening with Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s “Gretchen” (at her spinning wheel), and I thought of a phrase from Gypsy: “Sing out, Louise!” Louise was too reticent. But what a pianist, what a phenomenon, Yuja Wang is. We are lucky she came along.