I've been known to react allergically to hot, young pianists. I deplore the hype heaped upon them and the repertory choices they're pressured to make. And I weep for the mature, insightful performers sidelined by the music industry's obsession with youth and technique.
That said, I was bowled over by Yuja Wang's Frederic Chopin Society recital Sunday at Macalester College. At 22, the Beijing native is well beyond adjectives like "promising" -- she is a finished artist of formidable range and depth. A student of Gary Graffman at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, from which she graduated last year, Wang has both the explosive dexterity we've come to associate with Asian-born pianists and, what is rarer, a poet's sensibility. (She also shows a laudable independence of taste; she told an interviewer that of Beethoven's piano concertos she likes the "Emperor" least, finding it "repetitive.")
The first half of Wang's program, which overlapped not at all with her soon-to-be-released debut CD on Deutsche Grammophon, established her 18th- and 19th-century credentials. In her opening set of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the two works in G major (Nos. 427 and 455 in Ralph Kirkpatrick's catalog) were taken needlessly fast, but without sacrificing articulation or accuracy. The proto-romantic B-minor Sonata (K.87), subtly shaped, offered a foretaste of the Brahms to come; the E-major (K.380), once a fixture on Vladimir Horowitz's programs, was a paragon of sly delicacy.
Young pianists are often clueless when it comes to Brahms, but the two books of Brahms' Paganini Variations, his last big work for solo piano, proved the high point of Wang's recital. These marvelous pieces, thunderous and ethereal by turns, were treated to a performance of magisterial sweep and tonal refinement; my favorite variation, the dreamy waltz in Book II, was played unforgettably. If on occasion the pianist overlooked Brahms' implied punctuation, her surging line carried the day.
Wang's all-Russian, all-20th-century second half included a lucid rendition of Nicolai Medtner's nostalgic "Sonata-Reminiscenza," a spectacular realization of Stravinsky's Three Movements from "Petrouchka," and a less-than-persuasive account of Alexander Scriabin's erotically charged, ecstasy-seeking Sonata No. 4. These should have left her prostrate. Yet somehow she found the stamina for two encores, lyric (Gluck-Wang) and pyrotechnic (Mozart-Volodos), which together served notice that golden-age pianism, so loudly lamented, isn't quite as dead as its mourners suppose.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.