Yuja Wang: Sonatas & Etudes - precision perfect

Yuja Wang, the twenty-two year old, Chinese born, virtuoso pianist is due to release her first album with Deutsche Grammophon: Sonatas & Etudes. It is a wonderful mixture of Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin and Ligeti. My initial thoughts, prior to listening to the CD, was that Ligeti might seem a bit jarring with Chopin, Liszt & Scriabin, but Ms Wang pulls them together by providing flawless work on the keyboard.

Sonatas & Etudes starts with Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor op. 35. In the opening movement there is a subtlety of the repetitive figures that builds the tension in preparation of the slower section and the emotional release giving the piece a rich poignant flow. The Scherzo flowed from light to heavy and back again, giving the listener a chance to enjoy the subtlety of the waltz. Ms Wang chose to give the movement more rubato than might be danceable, but in terms of performance it is precisely what is called for.

Perhaps the most recognizable movement of the Chopin, the Marche funèbre starts distant and somber, but slowly builds to the heavy doom. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite get heavy enough prior to the lighter middle section to really create the stark contrast this movement needs. Of the entire CD, I felt this particular piece didn’t fair as well as the heavy sections lacked a depth in the lower register that I wanted to hear.

The move into the Presto gives us a chance to marvel at Yuja Wang’s command of the keyboard. The piece flies across the keyboard bringing the piano sonata to a breathless close.

Ligeti’s Etude 4 is a wonderful piece and in many respects different than the Chopin with jarring harmonies and minimalistic repetitive figures. Written in 1985, nearly 150 years after Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 2 and yet, the flow from the Finale: Presto movement of the Piano Sonata into Ligeti’s Etude 4 is seamless. The rapid figures and flow along the keyboard is a perfect match and Yuja Wang plays both flawlessly.

Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in G sharp minor op. 19 follows Etude 4 to shift the mood to more contemplative. The Andante is lyrical and soft, with Ms Wang allowing her emotion to drift over the keys in a very romantic style. The original composition completed in 1897, was Scriabin’s final composition. Midway between the Chopin and the Ligeti, it fills the gap beautifully providing both a sense of melody and lyricism, with harmonic shifts that set the stage of the atonality of Ligeti’s music.

Like the Presto of Chopin’s piano sonata and Ligeti’s Etude, the Presto of Scriabin’s piano sonata has a rapid series of flowing notes Ms Wang seems to effortlessly caress the music from the piano. Each note meticulously performed and yet so fluently fit into to the flow, the piano seems to float through the piece.

If the first Ligeti track was amazing with its rapid figures, Ligeti’s Etude 10: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is even more so. Same note repetitions deftly display Yuja Wang’s command of the keyboard. Not only can she handle the flow up and down the keyboard, but her fingers maintain the same authority when needing to rapidly strike the same note. This track left me near breathless, unable to exhale until it was finished – sheer magic.

The final piece on Sonatas & Etudes is the only piano sonata written by Liszt, Piano Sonata in B minor in 1854. This piece draws the rest of the music together with the grand figures and rapid flowing movement of the previous pieces into the first movement. Where the 3rd movement of Chopin’s may not have had the power I’d hoped, in Liszt’s piano sonata Ms Wang exceeds all expectations. The shift between the dramatic to the soft and pensive is handled beautifully. There is no lack of emotion from either end of the spectrum.

One of the amazing aspects of Liszt is his ability to place the melody between accompaniments above and below. In the fugal figure in the final movement of the piano sonata, Yuja Wang is able to stress the melody wrapped between the upper and lower parts so the melody is clearly heard and not masked by the other lines of the music. Her ability to pull out the melody as it moves from one hand to the next, as it flies from one register to another is simply amazing. Many much older (more experienced) pianists struggle with this and yet, Ms Wang seems to perform this piece and the nuances of it with ease.

Often, when listening to a solo piano performance, whether in the concert hall or on a recording, there is generally so much reverb the precision of the performer is lost. This doesn't make the performer less remarkable, or even the performance. But, when you get a chance to hear the precision performance of someone like Yuja Wang, her perfection is taken to a new level. She is only twenty-two years old, making her debut CD all the more incredible.

Helmut Burk did an outstanding job as the Recording Engineer to allow us a chance to hear every note from the most subtle, to the demanding aggressive passages pounded on the keyboard. It was most noticeable in the second movement, Scherzo of the Chopin piano sonata which would go from the extremes in a matter of a few bars. Mr Burk could have perhaps accentuated the lower register in the 3rd movement of the Chopin to beef up the piece, but overall an excellent job of allowing us to really hear the ability of Yuja Wang.

“To listen to her in action is to re-examine whatever assumptions you may have had about how well the piano can actually be played.” - San Francisco Chronical

Yuja Wang's debut CD, Sonatas & Etudes is all that and more, because you can revel in her ability over and over again. The more you listen to it the more stunning her performance becomes; these amazing pieces become absolutely breath-taking. Yuja Wang is young, and typically we could expect her to improve in the years to come. I am not sure how that’s possible.

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