During a frenzied moment in the opening of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6, the manuscript is marked, over a dense chord, “col pugno.” When she reached it, pianist Yuja Wang curled her fingers into a fist and skillfully smacked the keys, the percussive surprise of the moment executed with an inspiring combination of precision and charm.
We’re so accustomed to the proficiency level of the top-flight pianists who live in or pass through this area that when an exceptional talent like this one appears, it takes a moment to register that something even more extraordinary than usual is happening on stage.
Yuja Wang is a 24-year-old enjoying a phenomenal career, having already appeared with many major orchestras, in many cases as a last-minute replacement. She made a splash three years ago in concerts at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Saturday’s solo recital at Albany’s Massry Center should only add to her legend.
The big piece was Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, a four-movement but nonstop work that opens with some ominous octaves that, in Wang’s hands, suggested the sweep with which Horowitz took on the piece. But what most energizes her approach is a control over the dynamics that shades the textures with a more colorful palette than I’m used to hearing.
It takes extraordinary technique to do this, but you could hear it in her control of a trill that joyously erupts into a pattern of tricky filigree, or the abandon with which she dove into a frenzie contrapuntal section, fingers flying but never losing the pulse of the piece.
I’ve yet to hear a greater emotional range drawn from this sonata, but she wasn’t laying on gratuitous interpretive ideas, a too-popular way of imprinting a piece with so-called personal style. Instead, she was drawing these moods from the piece itself as if unlocking it.
And as she romped through the piece—because a sense of joy lay at the heart of all its drama—I saw a storyline emerge. The Liszt sonata is a Bette Davis movie. It has fire, love, sex, disillusionment, reconciliation, tenderness. Paul Henreid is courting the woman with his usual dignity, while Claude Rains hovers nearby to tear them apart.
Given the finger busting pieces to come, the opening works by Scriabin were deceptively gentle. Five miniatures, drawn from early in the composer’s career, invoked a variety of colors that never strayed far from a Debussy-meets-Rachmaninoff sensibility. Here that dynamic control was first apparent, as Wang shaped each of the works with deft strokes that seemed to light the stage in a variety of pastel hues.
But it was that Prokofiev sonata that really blew off the roof. It’s considered the most difficult of his set of nine, one of three such works written during a debilitating war. It’s a rebellious, angry piece that nevertheless glows with the composer’s unstoppable gift for melody, particularly in the sprightly allegretto that follows the opening movement.
A slow movement that’s more or less in 9/8 time begins gently, hinting at a waltz, but Wang brought out its growing intensity by giving identity to the individual melodic voices that rise in a collective clamor before the movement retreats into calm.
Look for Wang’s performance of the final movement on YouTube. It’s from a different concert, but you’ll see a portrait of a pianist radiating calm as her fingers blur. She brought out the gaiety of a troika-like section that visits twice, and wove the whole thing into a devastating finale that brings back the tragedy of the opening bars.
Her well-chosen encores were by Prokofiev and Liszt. First the former’s Toccata, and why not. From a murmuring ostinato there erupts an angular cacophony that seems to use every key on the piano, and that’s not counting the glissando that finishes the piece. And then it was Schubert by way of Liszt: “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” a song drawn from Goethe’s Faust, its melancholy lyric sung over the relentless motion of a spinning wheel. And so it seemed almost gentle, although Liszt gave his piano version a character that preserved the melancholy in a virtuoso frame. An impressive finish to an amazing recital.