Pianist Yuja Wang gives bravura recital

  • Article by: LARRY FUCHSBERG , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2011 - 10:15 AM

Chinese-born musician, just 23, played at high intensity for two hours at her Schubert Club date.

Pianist Yuja Wang.

Photo: Felix Broede/DG,

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"Going home to practice?" said a concertgoer to a local pianist after Yuja Wang's flabbergasting Schubert Club recital Tuesday evening. "No," came the reply, "I'm going home to kill myself."

Such sentiments must have been rife in the Ordway Center crowd, dense with musicians. The Beijing-born, Curtis-trained Wang, who turns 24 next month, is no mere "virtuoso" -- a word cheapened by overuse. Hers is demonic, more-than-human pianism, of the sort that gets you thinking about Faustian bargains. Reviewers have been comparing her to Vladimir Horowitz, whose name, more than 20 years after his death, is still synonymous with keyboard witchery.

A less confident pianist would shun these references to Horowitz, whose neurotic grandeur put him in a class of his own. But Wang (a student of Gary Graffman, who had lessons with the old magician) seems to court the comparison, concluding her formal program Tuesday with Horowitz's blistering arrangement of Saint-Saëns' "Danse macabre" -- the last of a trio of encore-like bravura transcriptions (all memorized) that I found more exhausting than exhilarating. Any one of these pieces would have made the desired point.

Wang's first half was the stronger. She pounced on the dramatic arc and the meditative coda of Rachmaninoff's "Corelli" Variations -- his last solo piano piece, and perhaps his best. (In the second half, the same composer's arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" fared less well: Though faster and cleaner than Rachmaninoff's own 1935 recording, Wang's account had little of its charm.)

Schubert's obsessional, death-shadowed C-minor Sonata, the program's centerpiece, proved more elusive. Wang made its silences register, and dealt imaginatively with its often-incoherent finale. But her quick tempos compromised the music's all-important spectral moments. More than once she gave the impression of skating warily over its depths.

A well-chosen group of early (and hence rather Chopin-like) miniatures by Alexander Scriabin opened the second half; of these, the G-sharp minor Prelude (Op. 11, No. 12) and the F-sharp major Poem (Op. 32, No. 1) were especially fetching. And of Wang's encores, which capped nearly two hours of ferocious concentration, Liszt's arrangement of Schubert's "Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel" was unforgettable.

Gifts like Wang's crave their own exercise, and I don't fault her for flaunting them. She clearly has it in her to become one of music's defining presences for the next half-century or so. She could settle for a conventionally brilliant career. Or she could do something really interesting. Which will it be?

Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.

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