A stellar evening with superstar pianist Yuja Wang, who played a distinguished recital at Benaroya Hall loaded with Scriabin and Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s most famous works.
As a musician, 27-year-old Yuja Wang’s reputation has preceded her: glowing reviews from all over. Wednesday night at Benaroya Hall, she showed that she has earned them in spades.
Playing as part of the Seattle Symphony’s Distinguished Artists Series, Wang made it clear that she is a musician to the tips of her toes, not just one of those whose brilliant technique is at the service of showing off — as sometimes is the case.
Her program demonstrated this. She chose three Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs and one of his last sonatas, then devoted the second half to several short pieces by Scriabin, a composer whose work is not easy to assimilate at first hearing, and which needs a performer who can elucidate it for the listener. Then she ended with the requisite showpiece, Balakirev’s “Islamey.”
From the first notes of “Liebesbotschaft” (“Message of Love”) from the “Schwanengesang” (“Swan Song”) collection of Schubert songs, her tone quality was something special: liquid, creamy, smooth. In this and “Aufenhalt” (“Dwelling Place”) from the same collection, and in “Der Müller und der Bach” (“The Miller and the Brook”) from Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schöne Müllerin” (“The Lovely Maid of the Mill”). The listener could hear the melody clearly through all the harmony, though it wasn’t loud. Wang played as though in a salon, with no need to push the sound, yet every note, every thread of the music, was audible. She brought out the tension in “Aufenhalt,” the sound of water in “Der Müller,” shading tempos slightly at times, giving phrases shape and endings. Nothing was overdone; just a perfect portrayal. These are songs, and she made the piano sing them.
The Sonata No. 20 in A Major from Schubert’s last year runs the gamut of expression from turmoil to peace, often in immediate juxtaposition, and we heard it all. The second movement particularly is an extraordinary one, thoughtful and pensive for a while, then exploding into a chaotic tumble of notes and finally falling back again. Colors and emotions abounded in Wang’s playing as she kept herself in the background, allowing the composer to come through. She is not a fussy pianist. She sits down and plays, with no waving around.
The three Scriabin Preludes on the program — Op. 9. No. 1 for the left hand, and ones in F-sharp minor and B-flat minor — plus the “Fantasie” in B Minor, two Poèmes and his Sonata No. 9, (“Black Mass”) are all short works, and Wang chose to program them chronologically so we could hear the progression in Scriabin’s compositional mind. Wang used much more pedal in these but again, her playing brought images to mind: moonlight in the F-sharp minor; swelling ocean waves in the “Fantasie”; a dreamy feel to the B-flat minor; quicksilver darting and lingering in the Poèms.
“Islamey” is not great music, but it is a fine vehicle for musical fireworks and technical wizardry, fun to hear and watch. Wang’s made the most of it with her musicianship and it brought the audience to its feet, cheering enough to bring her back for three encores: Clara Schumann’s fast, light “El Contrabandista,” arranged by Carl Tausig; part of the “Carmen” Variations by Vladimir Horowitz, and ending with Art Tatum’s delightful arrangement of “Tea for Two,” which Wang played with an innate feel for the 1920s.
If you missed Wang’s appearance, you’ll get another chance to see her: She’ll be back with the London Symphony Orchestra on April 1, 2015, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.
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