Brahms: Ballade in D Minor, Op. 10, No. 1
Brahms: Ballade in D Major, Op. 10, No. 2
Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, (Hammerklavier)
Another mid-May evening at Carnegie Hall, another sold-out performance by a superstar pianist from China, this time with Yuja Wang and a solidly classical program including two short ballads by Brahms, a love letter to his soon-to-be-wife Clara by Schumann, and a monumental masterpiece for piano by Beethoven.
This is a busy time of the year for music lovers in New York City as a lot of venues and ensembles are closing their season with very tempting, if occasionally conflicting, programs. But when the prospect of hearing the inimitable Miss Wang tackle the epic "Hammerklavier" presented itself, I figured that for better or worse some serious schedule reshuffling – and regretful sacrifices – were in order, and that's just what I did, totally confident that the outcome would be worth the effort.
The concert started engagingly enough with Brahms's first pair of Op. 10 Ballades, the grave darkness of the Scottish "Edward" Ballade starkly invoking the macabre patricide, the highly rhythmical radiance of the second one betraying a decidedly more upbeat mood.
Schumann's Kreisleriana was inspired by the manic-depressive character of Johannes Kreisler created by the Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, which explains the numerous contrasting sections, during which Schumann conjured up once again his two imaginary alter egos: The perky Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius. Moreover, the burning passion that Schumann was feeling towards Clara, possibly intensified by her father's stubborn opposition to their relationship, adds an unmistakable layer of hot-bloodedness to the work’s literary value. In Wang's astonishingly dexterous hands, Kreisleriana reached the right combination of drama and poetry.
But no matter how well the previous pieces had been executed – or even what they were – the one most attendees were anxiously waiting for had to be Beethoven's devilishly difficult and compellingly irresistible "Hammerklavier", one of the most famous pillars of the piano repertoire and an enormous challenge for even the most seasoned musicians.
It is beyond doubt that since her noted debut Yuja Wang has been steadily sharpening her technical chops and developing her sense of artistry to the point where she can now face Beethoven’s daunting sonata squarely, and she confirmed it on Saturday evening with youthful vigor, vivid colors, beautiful phrasing and plenty of attention paid to the knotty little details. Her spirited interpretation was at times as voluptuously majestic as the composition itself, but she also kept the Scherzo rhythmically sharp and the quieter moments intimate and subtle. Once she had made it to the end, she was indisputably entitled to declared complete victory.
As the concert hall erupted into a huge ovation, I could only marvel at how fortunate I was to conclude my Carnegie Hall season on such a memorable note, thinking that after such a tremendous journey everybody was ready to pack up and go home. But then I had to think again because Wang eventually came back, and not empty-handed, to say the least.
For about a half-second she understandably seemed unsure what to play, but she quickly regained confidence and went on to treat the ecstatic audience to no fewer than five little nuggets that kept on popping out like dazzling fireworks: Liszt’s version of Schubert’s "Gretchen am Spinnrade" was cleverly crafty, and followed by a lovely rendition of "Melodie" from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Next, Horowitz’s intensely flavorful "Carmen Variations" and Arcadi Volodos’ wildly entertaining take on Mozart’s "Rondo alla Turca" let off countless virtuosic sparks to the audience's delight, before Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp Minor cooled things off and finally eased our way into the outside world.
The outcome had definitely been worth the effort.