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Yuja Wang
Fantasia
Selections by Sergei Rachmaninov, Domenico Scarlatti, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Issac Abeniz, Georges Bizet (arr. Vladimir Horowitz), Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss, Fredric Chopin, Paul Dukas (arr. Victor Straub), Alexander Scriabin, Camille Saint-Saens (arr. Franz Liszt, Vladimir Horowitz)
Yuja Wang (piano)

Franz Liszt
Totentanz; Petrarch Sonatas 47, 104, 123
Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky
Concerto No. 1 in b-flat minor, Op. 23
Sergio Tiempo (piano) Ion Martin (Lizst) and Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky (Tchaikovsky) conducting the Swiss Italian Orchestra

Review By Max Westler

 

   

  Forgive me for not having listed the entire program for the Yuja Wang disc, but it encompasses 18 separate tracks, and I feared you wouldn't have made it through those thickets to the review itself. So let me begin by briefly summarizing what you'll find here. The program opens and closes with selections by Rachmaninov and Scriabin, two near-contemporary Russians that Wang has favored in the past. For Rachmaninov, you get three of the more popular Etude-tableaux (from Op. 39, Nos. 1, 4, and 6) and the haunting Elegy in E flat minor, Op. 3, no. 1. For Scriabin, it's five works from his early, deeply Romantic but not yet mystical period: two Preludes from Op. 11 (no. 11 in B major and no. 12 in G sharp minor), the Prelude in B minor, Op. 13, no. 6; the Etude in G sharp minor Op. 8, no. 9; and the lovely Poeme in F sharp minor, Op. 32, no. 1. The longer pieces here aren't very long, but count for much of the visceral excitement: Horowitz' madcap Variations on a Theme from Bizet's Carmen, Victor Straub's rarely played arrangement of Dukas' familiar Sorcerer's Apprentice, and the daunting arrangement of the Saint-Saens Dance Macabre by Liszt (with further merciless complications added by Horowitz). For contrast there is music from the dance: Triana from Book Two of Iberia by Albeniz, Gyorgy Cziffra's arrangement of a Strauss bon-bon the Tritsch-Tratsch Polka, and Chopin's Valse in C sharp minor, Op. 64. no. 2. At this point, I'm tempted to echo one of those late-night infomercials: Wait! There's more! There is indeed more: a Scarlatti Sonata (in G major, KL.455), Liszt's arrangement of Schubert's Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, and Gluck's gorgeous Melodie from Orfeo and Euridice (as arranged by Giovanni Sgambati).

Your response to this most peculiar gathering will depend on whether or not you're willing to accept it at face value: a program made up entirely of encore pieces. It's easy to complain that a program made up entirely of encores is not unlike a meal made up entirely of hors-d'oeuvres, but there's a case to be made in favor of such an enterprise. Though they're pretty much routine at recitals these days, it's worth noting that, theoretically at least, an encore is an act of generosity, a gift from performer to audience. I have yet to witness a member of an audience walking away from that gift, mumbling, "Dear God, not another one." Encores are also (and perhaps primarily) an opportunity for sheer virtuoso display, and often provide the kind of shock and awe that can take your breath away. Encores  also provide opportunities to feature "miniatures;" shorter works that might otherwise get lost when set beside lengthier, more fully developed offerings.

Deutsche Gramophone has heavily invested in the career of 25-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, and she is one of their most highly promoted assets. This is her fourth release in the past three years. For her concerto debut (an all-Rachmaninov program, pairing the Second Concerto with the Paganini Variations), no less a conductor than Claudio Abaddo was chosen to be her accompanist. Though I'm not sure Wang the artist is equal to all this hype, she mostly does very well here, negotiating an impressively wide range of national styles and idioms. She also possesses the prowess to meet the considerable technical demands of the Carmen Variations and the Danse Macabre. Her whirlwind playing on the Strauss polka is both flawless and dizzying. And she is equally convincing in some of the quieter, moodier music, Rachmaninov's Elegy and the Scriabin Poeme. In general, this is a very entertaining disc, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to those who are curious about either the program or the pianist. As for the sound, it's altogether typical of the company's approach to solo piano recordings: bright on the top, very detailed, close-up. You'll want to keep the volume control well within reach.

Sad to say, we critics do not often accept things at face value. So I also have some serious reservations here. Good as it is, her performance of the Albeniz piece lacks the magic of Michel Block or the power of Alicia De Larrocha. The Chopin Waltz has none of the charm of Stephen Hough's recent collection or the wistful nostalgia of Rubenstein or the melancholy of Claudio Arrau. The Scarlatti is brilliant, but empty. And then there's the issue of Vladimir Horowitz. "I was almost tempted to call this disc ‘My Heroes,'" Wang says in her notes. "Horowitz is the ultimate pianist. He has explosions and amazing brilliance....The music is magnetic. It grabs you. You feel you have his full attention, which is why you listen to him so attentively." Of course, it's unfair to compare the young Wang to the mature Horowitz, but Wang invites such a comparison: no fewer than thirteen of these selections were included in the older pianist's basic repertory; and the Carmen Variations and the Danse Macabre remain two of his most famous encores.

In the E-flat minor Etude-Tableau, Wang organizes the notes efficiently, and the music makes a definite and positive impression. But Horowitz approaches it as a tone poem, full of an almost unbearable tumult and yearning that does indeed explode at the climax. This isn't just a question of technique, an example of "amazing brilliance." As with all the truly great pianists, it is a question of temperament: Horowitz plays as if his central nervous system was hotwired to his fingertips. Though at times his interpretations could be wrongheaded or idiosyncratic, one never doubts the emotional (I'm tempted to say, pathological) connection between Horowitz and the music he's performing. For me at least, that's what's missing in this recital: a sense of passionate commitment. Wang is capable of much brilliance, and she can be very engaging. But in the end, the music making here is more superficial than essential. I very much enjoyed this disc the first few times I heard it. But that enjoyment rapidly diminished with repeated exposure. I soon found myself thinking, "why am I listening to this, when I could be listening to Horowitz?"

If it's explosions you're after, I heartily recommend this new disc by the forty-something Venezuelan pianist Sergio Tiempo. That you probably haven't heard the name suggests the fate of worthy artists who have yet to secure a major label contract. Tiempo is a student and protégée of the great Martha Argerich, and these very live performances were made at the "Martha Argerich Presents" Festival in Lugano.  Not surprisingly, it is her flame-throwing style that he most brings to mind. These performances are impulsive, spontaneous, improvisational; strong whisky, and definitely not for the feint-hearted. In the Liszt and the Tchaikovsky, Tiempo throws all caution to the wind, and the results are mostly electrifying. Needless to say, this reading of the Tchaikovsky will probably be too personal for some tastes (not unlike Horowitz's, in fact). But I suspect that the more familiar you are with the music, the more you'll be taken with Tiempo's shockingly fresh approach. Here, at any rate, is the sense of passionate commitment I find missing in the Wang recital. There is nothing mannered or self-conscious about Tiempo's playing. As with Horowitz, you might complain that these interpretations are wayward, idiosyncratic, but there's no doubt that his playing springs directly from the heart. I find it refreshing to find a young pianist willing to take these kinds of chances. I should mention that the Swiss-Italian orchestra plays extremely well for an ensemble that is not top rank, and that both conductors Martin and Rabinovitch-Barakovsky provide exciting and like-minded accompaniment. The sound is realistic, transparent and spacious; and in the two concertos there's a convincing balance between piano and orchestra. The engineering puts you in the second balcony; so in this case, I'd recommend you turn the volume way up.

 

Performances:

Wang:

Tiempo:

 

Enjoyment:

Wang:

Tiempo:

 

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Tiempo:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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