For once, I’m lost for words…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

July 14, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang, whipped a sold-out Sydney Recital Hall audience into a standing, bravoing frenzy last night with a program of Chopin and Scriabin.

I opened my box of superlatives and peered inside to write this review, but none seemed good enough. This tiny, sexy, 28-year-old, one of an advancing avalanche of brilliant Asian pianists, was simply unbelievable.

Yuga Wang

Yuja Wang

Her first jaw-dropper was visual. She arrived on stage in a silver/multi glitter long evening dress that showed off her bare back, shoulders and arms. From there down, it perfectly followed the contours of her body like a second skin until it broke and flared near the floor. Having a fashion industry background I gave her top marks before she’d played a note.

She tiptoed into Scriabin’s Prelude for the left hand Op. 9 No.1, then, without a pause, added her right hand to play his Prelude in F sharp minor, Op 11 No 8. At this point she had established her sensitivity and clarity. Following was the Fantasy in B minor, a more substantial work. It drew the curtain aside on her astonishing technique that gave this piece orchestral breadth. Many excellent pianists, when going ten tenths, use the sustaining pedal to blur difficulties, but not Wang. Throughout the fantasy, and the rest of the concert, in fact, she hid behind nothing. There was never a trace of mud. It was clear notes all the way, evenly valued between treble and bass.

The gears shifted to Chopin with the Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58. Wang’s Chopin is all her own. Maybe she’s met the composer in the interpretive netherworld and has come to an agreement. Just as she seems in danger of overcooking the bravura she switches to poetry mode to melt the heart. The scherzo tickled like feathers flying past my face, the largo encouraged my eyes to close and the finale was grand and heroic.

While the audience took the interval to calm down, Wang was busy backstage changing. She returned to the second half in another long, top-revealing evening dress, but this one was in black with a colourful print covering most of the font. I’d be surprised it Wang doesn’t spawn a clothing label as part of her brand. Maybe she already has, following countryman Lang Lang down the lucrative commercial road.

Back to the music and back to Chopin, this time the Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor Op.35. Again there was tonal breadth that kept every movement buoyant. While we were never in doubt that this was virtuosic in the extreme, there was no sense of hurry for its own sake. The scherzo was nothing short of volcanic with the quiet middle section a good deal more emotive than her own recording of the piece. The famous third movement funeral march offered up a superb contrast between the heavy, rhythmic fall of boots and the meandering, dreamy lullaby of the middle section. Interestingly, when Wang returned to the march, the boots had taken on a different sound. There seemed to be extra notes to give a more final, death-like effect. I’d like to see her score.

Scriabin’s Black Mass was written at the beginning of his changeover from tonal to atonal form and so has elements of both. It is spiky, unpredictable and occasionally violent, elements that Wang handled with relish.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

The final scheduled offering was the piano competition warhorse, Balakirev’s Islamey. Reputed to be one of the hardest pieces to play for solo piano, I couldn’t see why Wang thought she needed to show off her technique because she’d already done so in spades. But when she played it the reason became clear. She turned what is usually a punishing, gymnastic routine into music of quite breathtaking beauty.

So where does Yuja Wang now stand in the over populated pecking order of international pianists? Crowd opinion suggests she could already be number one female pianist in the world or that Franz Liszt may have been reincarnated as a Chinese girl (I like that one). But whatever the speculation, this is one pianist I’d queue up in the rain to hear again. I can’t wait for next Wednesday night when she climbs aboard the Brahms second piano concerto with the SSO. Her outfit will be interesting too.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


One Response to “For once, I’m lost for words…a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing”
  1. Debbi Weiss says:

    I think I’ll need to see if I can get tickets! Sounds too good to miss.

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