On May 14th, 2016 I attended Yuja Wang’s recital at Carnegie Hall, with my wife Patti. This performance was the reason I became a Carnegie subscriber a year ago: I had to have great seats, and we did.
The last time I was at Carnegie was to see Kissin (reviewed here). For him, additional seats were placed on stage to squeeze in as many spectators as possible. Not so for Yuja Wang.
Since Ms. Wang’s recital was sold out, it surprised me that she had the stage to herself. I am sure that she was happy about that, however. It can’t be easy to have the audience intruding on your personal space when you are tackling such strenuous repertoire.
Yuja Wang’s Sparkle
People will tell you that Yuja Wang’s clothing has nothing to do with how well she plays, but this reviewer acknowledges that those fabulous outfits are part of Yuja’s brand. I would have been disappointed if she did not look like a diva. I was not disappointed: she walked out on stage in one of the most beautiful gowns I have ever seen. Its color reminded me of the pale salmon that I had across the street an hour earlier at the Europa Cafe (205 W 57th St., recommended). The gown didn’t just sparkle, it flared and outshone the highlights of the black Carnegie Steinway. You can get a hint of that from my photograph.
Brahms Ballade in D Minor
The recital opened with the Brahms’ Ballade in D Minor, Op. 10 No. 1. This was impressively sonorous, and for me the best part of the scheduled repertoire. I settled back to absorb the rest of the evening, but when she moved on to Schumann’s Kreisleriana, I could not feel it. I can’t fault Ms. Wang: I personally have never gotten much out of Schumann.
Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata
After the intermission, Yuja showed up in a dramatic new gown – dark green with a saucy slit on the audience’s side, as seen in my wife’s photograph (credit Patti Turner). If you wanted skin, this was your moment. But while the dress shimmered, Yuja’s performance seemed a little off. The Adagio was haunting but the rest, to be honest, did not work for me. Perhaps she was dulled by playing the same German program again and again. Or perhaps the Hammerklavier is so complex and demanding, that it is as hard for the audience as it is for the soloist.
Yuja: I don’t know what to play!
After the end of the program I wondered which of Yuja’s legendary encores we would be treated to. I had had enough heavy repertoire, as had most everyone else. When Yuja returned to the piano for an encore, the hall was electric with anticipation. She sat at the keyboard for a few moments, then turned to the audience and said ruefully “I don’t know what to play!”
My heart went out to her. This had not been the most inspiring evening. This was partly due to the program, but in some intangible way it also came from the pianist herself. Maybe she just needed to burn some Rondo Alla Turca.
Gretchen am Spinnrade (Schubert, arr. Liszt)
From that moment on, we were treated to the gifted Yuja we love. I have never heard such a beautiful rendering of the Schubert/Liszt spinning wheel, Gretchen am Spinnrade. There are few pianists who can make me teary, but she did. Or watch it on medici.tv: a year’s subscription costs less than dinner for two in New York.
Carmen and Ronda Alla Turca
At this point it had been a long night for us and for the performer. If Yuja had called it quits, that would have been ok. But she came alive with her encores, and so did we. She gave us both Horowitz’s Carmen and the Mozart/Volodos Rondo Alla Turca. I’ve watched these many times on YouTube, but to see Yuja Wang in person, elbows stretched to both ends of the keyboard delivering these delights, was the treat of a lifetime.
Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor
Ms. Wang played Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2 as her final encore. It was beautiful, especially the last 16 bars.
Most pianists do not bring out the descending right hand notes at the end of each bar (G, G, G, F, E, D, C, D). Kissin does, but Rubenstein, Horowitz and Ashkenazy do not. As written, the pedal comes off at the end of the bar, but Yuja holds her thumb down to sustain this note through the next bar. That’s definitely not what’s written, but it makes for a luminous sound. You can see her do this in her superlative Verbier 2010 video, starting right here.
Yuja Wang at Carnegie May 2016: sublime!
We saw two pianists at this event: Yuja Wang the professional who seemed weighed down by the main course, and Yuja Wang the star who lit up for dessert. The star was the Yuja whom I went to Carnegie to see. She brings out the inner layers of familiar pieces in a way that makes me feel I am hearing them for the first time. At her best, she is sublime.