Yuja Wang - Transformation
Three movements from Petrushka (1921) [15:23]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in E major, K380 [5:21]
Sonata in F minor, K466 [5:36]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme by Paganini (1866) [19:44]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse (1920) [11:49]
Yuja Wang (piano)
rec. January 2010, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 8795 [57:53]

Yuja Wang’s second recording combines classics of the piano repertoire with some less frequently heard works. The major works, Stravinsky’s Three movements from Petrushka and Brahms’ Paganini Variations, are each followed by a Scarlatti sonata. La Valse finishes the disc with a flourish. The fact that the Stravinsky and Ravel pieces were written and intended, respectively, for the Ballet Russe gives a pleasing symmetry to the program. The disc is titled ‘Transformation’, something Wang finds in the thematic changes wrought by Brahms and Ravel, and in Petrushka’s journey from puppet to human and back. This is an adventurous and well planned recital with plenty of scope to show off a young pianist’s versatility and technique.

Technique is certainly called for in the Petrushka work, and as expected Wang is equal to its demands. The pounding rhythms of the Danse russe, characteristic of Stravinsky’s ballet scores, are strongly dispatched. The contrasting episodes of La semaine grasse give her a chance to show off her bell-like touch in its melodic passages. However her choice of a Hamburg Steinway gives this performance a mellow, almost orchestral tonal range that is lacking in some of the more percussive accounts of this work. Idil Biret’s analog recording is a touch slower, but the Turkish pianist manages to infuse her performance with a more theatrical feel, and her steady pacing gives her performance more slow-burn dramatic tension.

After the fireworks of Petrushka, the first of the Scarlatti sonatas sounds at first a little plain, with much less tonal and dynamic variety than Emil Gilels brought to these miniature marvels. No attempt is made to vary Wang’s chaste approach by way of ornamentation, even in the repeats. However their place in the program is, as Wang says, as “a little bit of sunshine between the big dark works, a relief for the ear”. In this way they act as a palate freshener between the main courses.

Brahms’ Variations on a theme by Paganini constitutes a meal in itself. The variations, on the familiar Caprice no. 24, were written as a challenge to the Polish pianist Carl Tausig. Yuja Wang is certainly up to the task right from the crisp articulation of the theme onwards. Extended trills sparkle, successive octaves are cleanly delineated, and the arpeggio variations keep a grip on the illusion of spontaneity. Wang’s rhythms sound unhurried; a tempo is set for each piece, and observed without either excessive rubato or rigidity. Dynamic contrasts are carefully brought out and each variation is sharply characterised. This Paganini Variations never sounds like a series of piano studies.

Yuja Wang plays the variations in the order adopted by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Book 1 is played through from Variations 1-12, with numbers 12 and 13 held over. In Book 2, nos. 9 and 14 are omitted and nos. 3 and 4 are placed at the end. Variations 12 and 13 from Book 1 conclude the performance. Whether one agrees with this re-ordering or not, it is characteristic of her thoughtful approach. Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s 1994 performance, by contrast, plays the variations in the order in which they appear in the score. This “straight” approach is consistent with the classical restraint of his performance, but means that he misses the chance to end with the first book’s powerful concluding variations. He is overall more distant, lacking the drama Yuja Wang brings to the work. This quality is even more evident in La Valse, which moves from the glitter of the Viennese waltz to the despair and chromatic dissolution of the final bars.

Guy Aron

A fine recital by a young artist in whom a sound technique is allied to a thoughtful sensibility and dramatic projection.

see also review by Bob Briggs