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CD Review

Transformation

DGG 4778795
Yuja Wang, piano
Deutsche Grammophon 4778795
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If you've not yet heard of Yuja Wang, you soon will. One of the younger generation of Chinese pianists, the vigor, flexibility and interpretative depth of her playing has attracted widespread praise. Here's her second CD. The first, "Sonatas & Etudes" also on DG (477 8140) was released in April 2009 and consisted of works by Chopin, Scriabin, Ligeti and Liszt. Its title is "Transformation" (singular) reflecting the (Buddhist) notion that life is constant change… Brahms varying one theme 27 times; Pétrouchka the puppet becoming human – but only for a while; and a prominent civilization represented by the waltz tearing itself apart. Even in this last case the slight ritardando which Yuja Wang injects into the last bar of La Valse [tr.33] suggests, perhaps, a reprise. Yuja Wang is an enthusiastic, expressive, self-aware and technically highly proficient player whose playing truly delights with a CD full of moments at which you are pulled up short, seeming to be hearing the music for the first time: that's quite an achievement for someone barely 23 years old.

Yuja Wang was born in Beijing in 1987 and began studying piano at the age of six. Her first public performances took place in China, Australia and Germany. She studied under Ling Yuan and Zhou Guangren at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing before moving to Canada, where she continued to study with Hung Kuan Chen and Tema Blackstone at the Mount Royal College Conservatory. When only 15, Yuja Wang won the concerto competition at the Aspen Music Festival and moved again – to the United States. There she studied with Gary Graffman at The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, from where she graduated in 2008. Other awards have quickly followed. These reflect not so much her achievement as one so young as such. But recognize her unusual blend of spontaneity and almost extrovert commitment to presenting her audiences with the "most" at each performance on the one hand (she broke a string while playing in Monte Carlo recently). And technical exactitude and discipline on the other.

This blend is exhibited amply in the CD under consideration here. It begins and ends with the excitement of Stravinsky and Ravel – Three Movements from "Pétrouchka" and La Valse. In each she knows just when to hold back; and exactly when to become more expansive and apparently unbridled. "Apparently" because her technique is so advanced that she remains invariably in control. But it's a very personal control, as track after track (there are nearly three dozen on this CD) reveals. The glissandi and strident chords in the middle section of La Valse, for example [tr.33], are not for show, but emphatically to convey the aura with which the whole piece is intentionally shot through by Ravel.

Then there are some decidedly reflective items: andantes only from two delicate and understated Scarlatti sonatas (Kirkpatricks 380 and 466). These Yuja Wang doesn't set out to play saying, "Now I'm going to show you how sensitive I can be". She just is – and confers on each a grace and elegance, a tenderness and emotional charge that make them sound, familiar pieces that they are, fresh and new. The balance of her playing has the result, almost, of presenting the sonatas to us as though a challenge had been issued by Scarlatti to find in the calm and linear unfolding of these narratives an almost spiritual center from which the rest of the sonata can be explained.

The Brahms "Paganini Variations" (Op. 35) form the conceptual centerpiece of this CD. They're performed in the order, Book I (Variations 1 through 12), Book II (1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 3, 4) then Book I (Variations 13 and 14). The work has the added advantage of letting us see Ms Yang's love of variety. Even though she sets out on each variation almost as though it were the only one in the set, she's also very aware of the need to tie the 26 short movements into the whole as envisaged by Brahms. This isn't an easy work to play – some of the variations are very short (II, 7 is only 19 seconds, for example). However compelling Paganini's theme, there's still a need to see the work in its entirety and set the mood, tonality and texture of one variation against the other – and against the whole. This Yuja Wang achieves extremely well.

Yuja Wang is obviously a pianist who's going far. Personable, charismatic and extremely energetic, she has struck just the right balance between the substance of her purely musical strengths and the (nowadays perhaps inevitable) pressure to market her as a visible personality. There's a counterbalancing genuineness in the YouTube appearances and tweets etc. which has enough depth and gravitas for us to take them as signs of a young performer as much in her own carefully contemplated world as in the act of persistently top flight creativity. Although it's unlikely that any of Yuja Wang's performances here would necessarily in and of themselves be first choices for their respective repertoires (which might not so quickly be said of her Liszt B minor Sonata on her first CD, see above), you are sure to delight and reflect on the infective sophistication and dedication to the act of music-making in this CD. It's to be hoped that her next offering may tackle substantial repertoire on its own. Meanwhile the vivacity and directness of her playing, and playing that's entirely idiomatic and touching, is likely to delight.

Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.

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