Neither the recent downturn in the economy nor the rumored collapse of the market for classical recordings has in any way slowed the production of super-talented young pianists; these seem to keep appearing at an ever more alarming rate. I use the word "alarming," because, as a music critic, I'm somehow supposed to keep track of them all.
Yuja Wang is a graduate of the Curtis Institute where she studied with Gary Graffman (whose other notable achievement is Lang Lang). I could mention her many awards and honors, but given the fearlessness and maturity of the playing we hear on this disc, no fact about her is more astonishing than her age: twenty-three years old."The amazing thing about Yuja Wang is that she has everything," says her producer in the accompanying notes, and though he's hardly a disinterested party, I have no choice but to agree. Certainly one can imagine no more demanding test of a young pianist's virtuosity and imagination than a program that includes the most difficult and complex music that Brahms, Ravel, and Stravinsky wrote for the keyboard. From the delicacy of the slow movements of Scarlatti's two best known sonatas to the swirling, hallucinogenic abandon of Ravel's La Valse, Yuja Wang is more than equal to every challenge this music presents.
Of the Brahms Paganini Variations, James Huneker wrote, "These diabolic variations, the last word in the technical literature of the piano, are also vast spiritual problems. To play them requires fingers of steel, a heart of burning lava, and the courage of a lion." Clearly Wang has the requisite fingers, heart, and courage to give this performance a spontaneity and depth that reminds me of the great Julius Katchen, who had no equal in this music. Her ability to characterize each variation — to speak to us in the many surprisingly different voices that Brahms demands — is balanced by a structural integrity that for once makes the whole seem more than just the sum of its parts. By the way, here Wang follows Michealangeli's lead, postponing the third and fourth variations in Book One until the very end of the score. Purists beware!
In Stravinsky's ballet Petrouchka, Wang cannot match the sheer brilliance of Pollini (who can?), but she more than compensates with an impressively wide expressive range that brings the scenario to vivid life. The reason she chose to employ a Hamburg Steinway for this performance was to bring "plenty of color" to the score. "A more percussive instrument would have been too machine-like for me," Wang says. Which is to say, unlike most pianists who approach this score as an ultimate test of their virtuosity, she's more interested in communicating the alternating currents of joy and terror that are at the heart of the ballet. "I want Petrouchka to seem really alive," she adds. And that she most definitely does.
Ravel arranged La Valse for two pianos, and that version has inspired many great recordings: Agerich/Friere, Ax-Bronfman, to name just two. But this is the first time I've heard his even more difficult arrangement for one piano. Here again Wang's performance places the full emphasis on the character of the piece, its expressive possibilities, and not the incredible virtuosity it takes to simply get through it. As she says in the notes, "At first, Ravel presents the waltzes in the classic Viennese style — then he transforms the whole thing into a dance of death, as in Strauss's Salome. He colors the piece chromatically, so that what have seemed just a nice waltz on the surface, even at the onset, has something evil lurking below." That Wang is able to do this while at the same time suggesting the rich colors of the orchestral version is only further testimony to her interpretive powers.
After all of this sound and fury, the two andantes from the Scarlatti sonatas provide a welcome sense of inwardness and restraint. Wang approaches this delicate music with a disarming simplicity that brings out their pristine beauty and nobility. Her Scarlatti turns out to be just as impressive as her Ravel and Stravinsky.
Happily, Helmut Burk's production fully captures the vivacity, clarity, and drama of Wang's readings, as well as the "big bass, bright top, and richly-colored middle register" of her Hamburg Steinway. In the end, this disc is richly enjoyable from first note to last. I recommend it highly and without qualification. When it comes to young pianists, maybe It is not such a bad thing to be embarrassed by riches.