Galuppi: Andante from Keyboard Sonata in C Major
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53
Ravel: "Une barque sur l'océan" from Miroirs
Mompou: "Secreto" from Impresiones intimas
Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1
Bach: Toccata in C Minor, BWV 911
Chopin: Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 67, No. 4
Brahms: Intermezzo in E Minor, Op. 119, No. 2
Chopin: Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 30, No. 4
Brahms: Intermezzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 117, No. 3
Chopin: Mazurka in B Minor, Op. 33, No. 4
Brahms: Romance in F Major, Op. 118, No. 5
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30
New York City and its seemingly endless supply of high-quality music performances can be a source of conflicting schedules (yes, there can actually be too much of a good thing). A case in point happened last Friday, when Carnegie Hall was hosting the only and only Yuja Wang, whose every appearance is a not-to-be-missed event, in the prestigious Stern Auditorium and the unstoppable West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, whose program included Mendelssohn’s fabulous Octet, in the cool Zankel Hall.
Considering that Miss Wang hadn’t presented a solo recital at Carnegie Hall since the 2017-2018, when she had memorably performed no fewer than seven encores on top of a most satisfying concert, there’s no way I was going to miss this one. So there I was on Friday night, after a super busy week that was slowly fading away as my mind was starting to focus on what would no doubt be another exciting performance by one of the most-in-demand musicians today. In fact, Wang enjoys such wide-ranging recognition that the management had to add several rows of seats in the back and on one side of the stage to meet the popular demand.
A message in the program, and then a recorded announcement by Wang herself right before the beginning of the performance, stated that the program was not going to be performed in the order printed in the program as she believed that “a program has its own life” and wanted to “let the music surprise her”. Accordingly, after she invited us to “experience the concert with our senses and an open mind, and to enjoy the ride”, we were off to an interesting "Name that piece" challenge.
Eighteen-century Venetian Baldassare Galuppi’s Andante from Keyboard Sonata in C Major kicked off our musical evening with much elegance and gentleness, which mightily contrasted with the resounding opening chords of Alexander Scriabin’s one-movement Piano Sonata No. 5. One of the most challenging works in the solo piano repertoire, it is a thrilling ride in the right hands, and Wang mastered it with superb command on Friday night.
I got a bit lost among the two pieces that followed, but looking back, I can now tell that the series of spell-binding arpeggios could only come from Maurice Ravel’s restless "Une barque sur l'océan" (A ship at sea), a delightful component of his Miroirs (Mirrors) suite, while Frederico Mompou’s miniature "Secreto" (Secret) from his Impresiones intimas (Intimate impressions), a little marvel of clarity and precision, was another after-the-fact no-brainer.
Then things got more serious, and works more substantial, with Second Viennese School’s pioneer Alan Berg and Baroque’s undisputed master Johann Sebastian Bach. Berg’s one-movement Sonata No. 1 sounded surprisingly lyrical for coming from such an austere movement, but then again, why imitates others when you can stand on your own? Even Bach’s Toccata in C Minor sounded warmer and freer than other, starker readings of his typical rigorous fare.
The mini-series of alternating little gems by Johannes Brahms and Frédéric Chopin that constituted most of the second half of the concert was, needless to say, a wonderful journey into nineteenth-century Romanticism. Highly melodic and readily engaging, they almost sounding like a single work made of wildly different yet equally appealing, self-contained movements. Although she is well-known for taming big and wild piano concertos, more than once Wang proved that she also has enough genuine sensitivity to bring out the subtle details of such smaller compositions.
Then we moved on to post-Romanticism with Scriabin again, and his continuous two-movement Piano Sonata No. 4, which unfolded first sensual then tumultuous, and concluded the official program with an exhilarating bang.
Wang is famous not only for her technical wizardry, but also for her generosity and eclecticism when it comes to encores. Accordingly, if last Friday, we got to hear “only” three of them, they spanned such a wide range that it truly felt like there was nothing left to say or play. Franz Liszt’s piano version of Schubert’s obsessive song "Gretchen am Spinnrade” is an oldie and goodie that she never fails to nail. Prokofiev’s devilish Toccata in D Minor was the perfect opportunity for her to show off her dazzling virtuosity — a direct view over her hands flying all over the keyboard actually made me dizzy — and unsurprisingly brought down the house. Last, but not least, Giovanni Sgambati’s arrangement of Gluck’s “Mélodie” from Orfeo ed Euridice was the perfectly-timed, achingly gorgeous send-off gift that beautifully wrapped up our evening.
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