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Transformation
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882 – 1971) Three Movements from Petroushka (1911)
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685 – 1757) Sonata in E, K380
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 – 1897) Variations on a Theme of Paganini, op.35 (1863)
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685 – 1757) Sonata in F Minor/C major, K466
Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937) La Valse (1920)
Yuja Wang (piano)
rec. January 2010, Friedrich Ebert Halle, Hamburg–Harburg DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8795 [58:27]

Experience Classicsonline

Our pianist is quoted, on the rear inlay to this CD, saying “My new album reflects the endless transformations in life and music.” I thought that her new album concerned several great works of music. She continues, “Petrushka the puppet comes to life imbued with human emotions. Paganini’s theme is totally re–interpreted in melody, harmony and character. And the Viennese dance undergoes disintegration in La Valse.”

There is more than a little new age claptrap here, not to mention stating the very obvious in very a poor way. A line such as, “Paganini’s theme is totally re–interpreted in melody, harmony and character” is ridiculous when one knows that in a set of Variations this is exactly what will happen. So the phrase becomes redundant. And the comment, “…the Viennese dance undergoes disintegration in La Valse” totally misses the point of the music, which is not to destroy the waltz, but to show the total destruction of a way of life by world war. And surely the three pieces from Petroushka are insufficient to allow the story of the puppet to really come to life for us.

Ms Wang’s comments read like the kind of naïve mutterings of so many of our contemporary pop stars who so often fail to articulate their, so often ill conceived, thoughts. Ms Wang might be better served if she were to allow us to simply understand the music she plays, and plays extremely well, without any misunderstandings.

Ms Wang is stunning in the Three Movements from Petroushka. Slightly understated and underplayed, one is only conscious of the music, never once, did I find myself thinking that this is superb pianism, my mind was wholly what I was hearing. The two Scarlatti Sonatas make delightful respites from the heavier, and meatier, works which surround them. I was most taken with her delicate touch in the E major work. Ms Wang really understands that this music can be played gracefully, yet with a real sense of style, on the modern grand piano. The other Sonata is full of pathos, melancholy and lots of yearning. And on top of this there is a subtle emotionalism which perfectly fits the piece.

The separate pieces which make up Brahms’s two books of Paganini Variations are here mixed up, and two are omitted, but they still make a fairly satisfying whole. However, even though Michelangeli omits the two variations – which is why Ms Wang omits them – I do not believe that any executant musician has the right to make such a decision. In the long run, a composer as experienced as Brahms knew what he was doing when he wrote the piece.

The booklet quotes George Benjamin on La Valse, making the point that it “…plots the birth, decay and destruction of a musical genre: the waltz.” All well and good but if he is right then Bolero does exactly the same to that dance rhythm. It doesn’t. And neither does La Valse. Ravel’s own note, in the published score, makes it clear that it is meant, at the outset at least, to represent a ballroom in about 1855. What he achieves is to show how the Great War, the supposed war to end all wars, brought about a fin de siècle and created a new, more modern society where the Imperial Ballrooms were redundant. Ravel destroys the waltz only as a metaphor for the destruction of a way of life – the dance continues but life changes. It’s a towering masterpiece, filled with menace and madness even as the human race goes on its merry way destroying itself. Ms Wang achieves exactly this feel in her interpretation. It is excellent.

I know that I have spent a lot of time talking about the written words which accompany this issue but they go some way to making a fabulous enterprise seem like some kind of teenage fantasy. This disk is a major achievement of great pianism and I would urge everyone to hear this astonishing young woman play like a demon and interpret like an angel. It is, quite simply, a fantastic achievement, but whatever you do, don’t waste your time with the notes which are pretentious and unnecessary. The sound is terrific, and the piano is captured in the most brilliant sound, crisp and clear. Fantastic.

Bob Briggs

 


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