A recital by Yuja Wang, the Chinese pianist, is an Event—as indicated by the spillover seating on the stage. There was such a spillover at Carnegie Hall on Friday night.
She played a slew of pieces—fourteen, plus three encores. I was pleased to see this. These days, recitalists like to play a few big pieces, rather than lots of smaller pieces.
The situation is even more pronounced in orchestral life. Rare is the orchestral program that has more than three pieces. In fact, I can’t remember a program that had, say, five.
When you operate this way, you pass over a lot of repertoire.
Wang played eight composers, namely Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Scriabin, Ravel, Berg, Mompou, and Galuppi. Who? Baldassare Galuppi, a Venetian composer from the eighteenth century.
Before the recital began, Wang made an announcement, via a recording. She said she would not play the fourteen pieces in the order we were seeing in our programs. Instead, she would play them as the spirit moved her—in any order that seemed right to her, at the moment.
I thought this was interesting, but also stunt-like. Between pieces, she appeared to be thinking about what she wanted to play next. Was she just pretending? Was she putting on some theater?
More seriously, many in the audience did not know what they were hearing, at any given time. I heard a lot of guessing around me. I felt sorry for the guessers.
Ms. Wang began with her Galuppi, an Andante from a C-major sonata of his. It was perfect, ladies and gentlemen: limpid, pure, tasteful, songful—perfect. She could have ended there, and people would have gotten their money’s worth (at least people in the cheap seats).
The best thing on the night, in my opinion, was Wang’s Ravel: a piece from Miroirs, “Une barque sur l’océan.” As I have said before, the woman is born to play French Impressionism. Her Ravel was a miracle. It was liquid. There was no sense of hammers and keys—of an instrumental mechanism at work. How Wang can achieve this effect is hard to fathom.
I have heard all the French Impressionists of my time, I suppose: Ciccolini, Johannesen, Entremont, Thibaudet, others. I have heard all the greats on recording (Gieseking, Michelangeli, Casadesus, et al.). I doubt this young woman has to take a backseat to any of them.
It is too risky to admit such a thing now, but everyone will later—once it’s safe—trust me.
One of Wang’s encores was the Prokofiev Toccata. As I have done for years, I marveled at her agility. There is no tightness to hinder her. Her forearms are wet spaghetti. She can play at high speeds with perfect clarity and accuracy. She is nimbleness personified.
Okay, how about weaknesses? Well, Wang seems unable to make a rich, rounded sound. She tends to play on the surface of the keys, rather than into them. On Friday night, this was a problem in, say, Brahms. Brahms requires a little fatness. Yang is nimble, lithe, and twinkly.
But she knows how to “play within herself,” as we’d say in sports. She uses what gifts she has (and they are considerable). I once said that her Liszt Sonata was “Debussyan.” This made a colleague of mine laugh. “Yes, but that sonata is supposed to be Lisztian, not Debussyan!” Still, I found Wang’s Liszt Sonata interesting. She used what she had. I think Liszt, that old wizard, would have smiled in admiration.
On Friday night, Wang was often too subdued, for my taste. There was lots of piano, and pianissimo, and mezzo-forte, in this recital. I wanted her to sing out. Wang was stubbornly sotto voce. She was mousy, when the music called for something bolder.
Here is a question for you: Is Yuja Wang a great pianist? She is great at what she’s great at. Does that make her a great pianist? I would say so, yes. Maybe not an all-purpose pianist—who’s that? Rubinstein?—but a great one. No one can play “Une barque sur l’océan” that way and be less than great. It is impossible.
I will give you two footnotes, here at the end. At the beginning of the recital, Wang raised her hands, to start the first piece. Someone coughed. Wang quickly withdrew her hands—like a golfer backing away from his set-up, having heard a noise in the gallery. Then she started over.
Second, you know I’ll tell you what she wore. For a good fifteen years, I’ve reported on her clothes, or lack of them—her “stripper-wear,” as I call it. On the first half of Friday night, she wore a fairly tasteful, huggy white number. On the second half, it was a fairly tasteful, huggy green number. She looked absolutely beautiful.
An Event, as I said at the top . . .