Korean pianist Joyce Yang last appeared at the Frederic Chopin Society 10 years ago, and since then has made half a dozen acclaimed recordings and established an international reputation.
Yang’s return for a recital Sunday afternoon at Macalester College confirmed her standing as a performer of scintillating energy and imagination.
Yang opened with Bach’s French Suite No. 5, a work originally intended for harpsichord but often played on piano. Taken whole, its seven movements sparkled with élan and vitality.
The Courante was fast and fun, the Bourrée mischievous and the concluding Gigue scampered like a jack rabbit. In the slower Allemande, Yang’s flowing tempo and singing tone made for a pleasing buoyancy in music that can sag if over-pondered. The Sarabande was searching, but not indulgently introspective.
Yang’s playing opened out dynamically in the “Anne Landa Preludes,” a work written by contemporary composer Carl Vine to commemorate a musical philanthropist in his native Australia.
The 12 pieces totaled a little over 20 minutes, and ranged widely in style. Debussy seemed a constant point of reference — “Two Fifths” riffed like one of the French composer’s etudes, while the wide hand-spacing of “Sweetsour” recalled the “Cathédrale englouitie” of his preludes.
But Vine’s references — Poulenc winked suggestively from “Divertissement,” and Shostakovich lurked in “Fughetta” — are never merely imitations, and the cycle as a whole was strongly distinctive and full of quirky personality. Yang pounced upon the jazzy inflections of “Tarantella” and fizzed through the perpetuum mobile of “Filigree,” while bringing a moving nobility to the concluding “Chorale.”
The occasional firecrackers that went off in Vine’s preludes became a full-on display of pyrotechnics after the intermission.
First up was Chopin’s Ballade No. 2. Its potentially dreamy opening seemed primed with tension in Yang’s suggestive parsing. The piece’s several eruptions of angst-charged temperament highlighted the solidity of her technique, the power concentrated in the forearms and fingers, the back and shoulders braced as an implacable foundation.
Her recital ended with Liszt’s Piano Sonata, a half-hour, single-movement piece that still ranks as an Everest of difficulty for pianists. Yang’s interpretation was imperious, with a fearless, fiery quality that in places recalled the great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich.
Yang’s ability to make left-hand figurations speak independently had already enlivened her Bach Suite at the start of the recital. In Liszt’s Sonata it became crucial, heightening coloration in the music’s multilayered textures, and clarifying strands of thematic argument — nowhere more than in the fugue, which Yang took at a dashingly brisk tempo.
Poetic interludes sang poignantly but not too sweetly, and the visionary final bars of the piece tolled ethereally in Yang’s precisely weighted voicing.
The Grieg Nocturne offered as an encore brought the emotional temperature down a little. But just a little. The scorch marks of Yang’s Liszt lingered, still occupying the imagination.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.