Yuja Wang’s meteoric rise to global stardom has been one of the most extraordinary stories of the piano world over the last decade.
When her debut CD for Deutsche Grammophon was released back in 2009 she was barely in her 20’s and many (me included) raised their eyebrows at her choice of programme, opening with Chopin’s monumental B flat minor Sonata and squeezing in performances of Scriabin’s 2nd Sonata and two Ligeti Etudes before finishing with Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. As it turned out, she performed all these with aplomb, her Liszt in particular being among the very best readings recently committed to disc.
Since then, the Chinese virtuoso has recorded concerti by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev (perhaps the most emotionally gripping performance I’ve yet heard of his grief-ridden 2nd Concerto), Ravel and Mendelssohn. Her solo discs Transformation and Fantasia have delighted fans, and she has lit up the world’s greatest concert halls with her technically explosive and musically rapt playing.
Now she’s back with a new recording. The Berlin Recital was recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie Kammermusiksaal in June 2018, and features a bedazzling programme of music by Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Ligeti and Prokofiev.
It’s an easy choice for Recording of the Month. Let’s investigate…
The four composers featured in Wang’s new programme are all ones whose music she has recorded before, but there is no repetition of repertoire.
The programme begins with a selection of four short pieces by Rachmaninov. Clearly one of Wang’s favourite composers, she has previously recorded his 2nd and 3rd Concerti, Paganini Rhapsody and several other miniatures. Here she opts for the Preludes in G minor Op.23/5 and B minor Op.32/10, bookending two Étude-tableaux in C minor Op.39/1 and Op.33/3. These are engaging and colourful performances.
Next the pianist tackles the rarely heard Sonata No.10 Op.70 by Scriabin, a somewhat mystical work from the latter part of the composer’s life which he himself described as a “sonata of insects”. A single-movement work with multiple sections, Wang penetrates the poetic complexity and delivers a performance which in my view compares favourably to the classic benchmark recording by Marc-André Hamelin.
As I mentioned earlier, Wang’s debut disc included two of the 20th century Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s Études (numbers 4 and 10). Here she revisits the set, this time picking No.3 ’Touches bloquées’, No.9 ’Vertige’ and No.1 ’Désordre’. These sparkling miniatures are surely among the greatest piano masterpieces to emerge from mid-20th-century atonality, and perhaps at some point Wang will give us a complete set (in the meantime, Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s version is the one to go for).
Here, the pieces provide a brilliantly conceived bridge between the mysticism of Scriabin and the contemplative introduction to Prokofiev’s 8th Sonata. No.9 ’Vertige’ is, perhaps, the highlight of the whole performance, quite staggering in its effervescent impact.
Prokofiev’s mighty Sonata No.8 in B flat major is the last of the three so-called “War Sonatas” written by the great Russian master at the height of the second world war. More lyrical and conciliatory in tone than its predecessors, the work nevertheless challenges both performer and listener alike with its three movement journey, comprising a powerfully dramatic first movement, more amiable middle intermezzo, and acerbic finale.
The 8th Sonata has been a popular work with pianists, notably championed by the great Sviatoslav Richter. Here again, Wang proves to be her own interpreter, her performance of the first movement being less spacious than Richter’s somewhat ponderously reflective account, while avoiding the rather matter-of-fact delivery of Alexander Melnikov’s excellent 2016 studio recording. Wang’s “third way” certainly emphasises the warmth latent in this movement, while in her playing of the intermezzo she continues along a similar path, this time giving the work more space than Richter.
Wang’s finale is nether as quixotic as Melnikov’s nor quite as intense as Richter’s; instead she gives the movement a triumphant weight which to my ears rounds off the most convincing overall of these three great interpretations. It is certainly to Wang’s credit that her youthful interpretation of the Prokofiev work is such an extraordinary and cohesive success, even though there remain some details in the Richter and Melnikov versions which are perhaps more characteristic of this composer.
The Encores EP
Worth mentioning at this point that a few weeks prior to the album CD release, DG issued a four-track EP of Encores digitally via streaming media. Recorded at the same event, this includes the following breathtaking showstoppers:
- Kapustin: Eight Concert Studies Op.40 No.3 – Toccatina
- Schumann (transcribed Tausig): Spanish Romance Op.74 “The Smuggler”
- Tchaikovsky (transcribed Earl Wild): Dance of the Four Swans from Swan Lake
- Prokofiev: Sonata No.7 (Finale: Precipitato)
It is for such virtuoso encores that Wang has become such a star of YouTube, and there’s certainly an excitement to her playing here which is rare indeed.
Deutsche Grammophon have given this release lavish packaging, with an open up cardboard sleeve revealing a montage of concert photos and the disc itself, a separate booklet hidden within the wallet.
The recording itself is stunning, even more so given it was made at a live concert. Audience noise is non-existent other than the understandably rapturous applause at the end of the disc. The piano sound is beautifully captured, revealing every nuance of Wang’s outstanding pianism and musicality.
Had DG included the Encores EP in the package, that would have been the icing on the cake; that said, this is an outstanding release on every level.
Quite how any pianist could deliver such an astonishing recital live, one breathtaking climax after another in such quick succession, is beyond me.
But once again, Yuja Wang proves that she is more than just a bedazzling virtuoso, taking her place as one of the great interpreters of our time. Not simply “recording of the month” then – this is without doubt the most stunning classical piano recording I’ve heard in 2018.
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