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Through the eyes of Yuja
A road movie by Anaďs & Olivier Spiro [47.00] George GERSHWIN (1898-1937]
Rhapsody in Blue [17.49] Maurice RAVEL [1875-1937]
Piano Concerto in G major [20.04]
Yuja Wang (piano)
rec. Haus für Mozart, Salzburg, Austria, 12 August 2016 (performances)
Sound Format PCM Stereo only for the documentary, concert also available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Region 0: Subtitles in English, German, French, Korean and Japanese
Reviewed in stereo and surround C MAJOR 745504Blu-ray [89 mins]
I imagine few will purchase this disc only for the documentary so I will start with the two performances that are included as a 'bonus'. Yuja Wang is a superb player. Nothing seems beyond her ability, from the most filigree decorations to the most powerful and ferocious passagework. Those characteristics are on display to the full in a first class performance of the Ravel G major Concerto. Competition is fierce with well over a hundred recordings listed on Presto including several Blu-ray videos, notably one by Martha Argerich which I reviewed in 2011. If I lean towards this last, it is mainly because of Temirkanov and the Stockholm Philharmonic who provide a more witty accompaniment than the somewhat straight laced Camerata Salzburg under Lionel Bringuier. However, Yuja Wang is very fine and if one heard this live I am sure one would be applauding enthusiastically at the end. Given the influence of Ravel on Gershwin - or was it the reverse? - I wish I could be similarly convinced by the Gershwin but I am not. Neither the pianist nor the orchestra sound at home in this profoundly jazz influenced piece, played here (I think) in the usual Grofé orchestration of 1942. The clarinettist sets the standard with a very curious opening glissando that seems to be broken into two or three parts, not all of them comfortable to hear. Yuja Wang clearly knows this piece has to be jazz-inflected but she does it in sequences of carefully moulded phrases and never swings like the real genre experts. Given her phenomenal skill and her lengthy time studying in the USA I imagine she will eventually get it right. It is little to do with technique but a lot to do with the playing mode. On the strength of this she wasn't, in 2016, a natural with jazz. In fairness it is not home territory for the orchestra either. For a corrective, look no further than Bernstein who plays and directs the Columbia Symphony on Sony Classical SACD SS89033 recorded, amazingly, in 1959, and still available on Amazon for an only slightly extravagant price.
The documentary film that is the main purpose of the disc has some interest not only to her devotees. It follows the pianist to several venues. She speaks about her 'nomadic' existence as an artist playing around 120 performances a year all over the world. She says she sees herself as a carrier of the music to her audiences and nothing leads one to doubt her commitment to the art. She has been in a world of concert giving since her childhood and is now a seasoned performer though only 31. We see her as she practices, prepares herself backstage and a few clips of her walking the area around a venue. She stands in her hotel rooms and looks at cityscapes; she sits at a table having lunch with tour colleagues; she responds to questions from a roomful of journalists and has brief exchanges with fellow musicians including some fulsome praise from Gustavo Dudamel. The filmmakers have occasionally given way to the temptation to do various bits of soft-focus and other video trickery, but mostly it is quite straightforward. It is accurately described as a 'road movie' and no attempt is made to interview her but it is very sympathetic to her situation. There is surely another documentary still to be made about her views on music and on constant travelling. There is a hint of those as she lists all the scores she is currently working at on her hotel upright piano. She gives a little grimace at the amount she has to do. This film mainly gives the feel of a busy life without introspection beyond a few remarks about isolation caused by pressure of work. Yes, for the record she is seen in a variety of her hallmark tight dresses but for a lot of the film she is casually dressed and, though hardly relaxed, she does look very normal despite the celebrity hothouse in which she operates. Overall the film is interesting enough for a view or two but coupled as it is with satisfactory but not outstanding performances it does not do her musical justice. For that there is for me currently only one place to go on video, the EuroArts Blu-ray of Mahler's Symphony No.1 conducted in Lucerne by the late, great Claudio Abbado. Yuja Wang is the soloist in Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto which made up the first half of the concert. I note I was rather dismissive of this when reviewing the set of Mahler 1 to 7 in 2011, but on revisiting it without the distraction of so much Mahler she came up better than my sniffy 'unremarkable', (we can change our minds after all!). Of course the accompanying Lucerne Festival Orchestra sweeps all before it in quality of playing. Abbado's close attention to his soloist is an object lesson in cooperative music making. I should note that she does appear on the rather expensive Berliner Philharmoniker Asian Tour Blu-ray set playing the 2nd Bartók Concerto (reviewed enthusiastically by John Quinn ), and on a DVD of Mendelssohn's 1st Concerto from the Verbier Festival but I have not seen either.
The recording of the concertos, video and audio, is up to the usual high standard. The booklet essay is worth reading and has some biographical background.