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Ligeti, Liszt, Scriabin, Bartók, Ravel:  Yuja Wang (piano) Presented by San Francisco Performances at Herbst Hall, San Francisco, 10.2.2008 (HS)

On her 21st birthday, pianist Yuja Wang hardly took the day off. The Beijing-born phenom, who is carving out an international career while still a student at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, tackled a formidable recital program that included Liszt's monumental Sonata in B Minor and shorter but technique-challenging pieces by Ligeti, Scriabin, Bartok and Ravel.

As she strode onstage in a bright blue satin gown she looked even more willowy and youthful than her age. She wasted no time with theatrics. After a quick bow, she settled before the keyboard, took a few deep breaths and started to play. Her playing reflected this lack of artifice. Her chin-length mop of hair often obscured her face as she played, but the swaying and dream-like trances of some young pianists are not for her. It all goes into the music.

For my money, the highlight of the day was Bartók's thorny Sonata for Piano. Wang got into the jagged rhythms and managed to bring some richness to the tart dissonances, resulting a nuanced performance that got the blood stirring.

Bartók got a more complete and total performance than did Liszt. Yang never quite wrestled this unruly beast into a coherent form, content to let the episodes come and go without finding a thread to tie them together. Still, the performance had its moments. Especially affecting were the lyrical themes, which she played with enviable legato and beauty without losing clarity. Although the stormier moments clanged at times, the grand return of those lyrical themes in double octaves sang out like a full-throated chorus.

Yang opened the recital with two études for piano by György Ligeti. In Fanfares, she displayed a riveting sense of rhythm in the jazzy 3-2-3 ostinato. She got the haze in the gauzy, Debussy-like opening to The Sorcerer's Apprentice and caught the swing of the jazzier, more complex rhythms with which the short piece ends.

She opened the second half with Scriabin's Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor. The flowing melodies and gentle sweep of the piece played to her strengths.

The crowd-pleaser, though, was a grand, steely-eyed performance of Ravel's La Valse, which concluded the printed program. The solo piano may lack the tonal colors of the more familiar orchestral version, but it has the singular benefit of giving us an artist's view of the piece unfiltered by having to communicate it to 100 musicians. Although betrayed by a piano whose lower range was not as distinct as it could be, Yang played the opening fog as if it were storm clouds gathering on the horizon. She let the Viennese waltz emerge like a ray of sunlight, lavishing a delicate rhythmic touch on it before letting the storm intrude increasingly, and finally pelt through the final pages.

Two unusual encores got the not-quite capacity audience to its feet for extended ovations. The first, Yang's own arrangement of an elegie by Glück, brought a moment of limpid gentleness after the terrifying ending of the Ravel. The second, a finger-busting, amazingly chordal arrangement of "Flight of the Bumble Bee" by Georges Cziffra (often played by Rachmaninoff), capped off the challenging afternoon with brio and wit.

Harvey Steiman

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