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Archive for March, 2011

Yuja Wang

Yuja WangThere is something refreshingly unpretentious about Yuja Wang, both in her playing and in her responses at the post-concert reception in Chicago’s Symphony Center. She is still only 24, but has built up an impressive resumé of orchestral appearances and is something of a YouTube phenomenon. Her performance of the Cziffra version of “Flight of the Bumble Bee” has been viewed over a million times. You can also follow her on Twitter. Her latest post was: “sitting in stephen hawking’s office in perimeter institute, looking at the blackboard feeling extremely ignorant” and who wouldn’t? She performed at the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics (obviously a very cultivated place) in Ontario three days ago, before visiting Philadelphia and then flying in this morning to Chicago. After the reception, she was getting on a plane to Berlin. She told us rather poignantly that she found Facebook a help in coping with the loneliness of the itinerant pianist and felt its absence in China, where it is blocked. So much for the glamorous life.

If she is engagingly normal as a person, she is anything but normal as a pianist. It was perhaps no surprise that Horowitz is her favourite pianist, although I have the impression that she models herself more on Arcadi Volodos. One of her encores was Volodos’ spectacular transcription of Mozart’s Turkish Rondo, whose ending was, if anything, even more turbocharged than Volodos’ own performance. During the main programme, she also played the Horowitz transcription of Carmen, another Volodos favourite, with consummate ease. Sadly, this replaced the Chernov transcription of Moussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, which I had not heard before and was looking forward to. Like Volodos, she combines dazzling facility with a gently lyrical temperament, so that somehow the over-the-top virtuosity doesn’t sound meretricious. Perhaps it wasn’t high art, but it wasn’t cheap entertainment either.

The fireworks followed a sequence of short Scriabin pieces, producing some of the most affecting playing of the afternoon. Wang caught superbly the sense of improvisational fantasy in Scriabin, alternating between the ruminative and the febrile. The manic, almost desperate, energy in one of his Études was followed by a sublime performance of one of his later Poèmes, where she gave the impression of creating the music as she played, like a jazz musician gently reflecting on a dream. This was what I had missed in Kissin’s performance of Liszt a couple of weeks ago, the sense of total immersion and imaginative engagement in the music.

At the start of the recital, Wang was similarly alive to the invention in Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations, one of my favourites (although apparently Rachmaninov was bored with it and used to skip variations whenever anyone coughed). She has the ability to float sounds, her slender arms hovering over the keyboard and gently stroking the keys to minimize the percussive impact. She is certainly not unique in doing this, but she does it very elegantly, her left hand filling in accompaniments with the greatest delicacy and sense of freedom. Rachmaninov, probably more than any other composer, requires the pianist to play as if both hands are independent personalities, sometimes sparring and sometimes cooperating with each other like chamber musicians. Wang seemed to relish this, as well as the soaring lyrical rapture that ended the piece.

She ended the first half with Schubert’s C-minor Piano Sonata, D. 958, surely one of his most anxiety-laden pieces. She confessed in the programme notes that this was her first venture into Schubert’s music, so I was surprised at how assured the first movement sounded. She caught the nervous intensity well, the sense of unease punctuated by dramatic outbursts of anger. However, I think she let the tension flag in later movements, the Adagio a little too lyrical with insufficient gravity, the Scherzo (without any repeats?) with little sense of desperation. The Finale is one of Schubert’s death gallops like the Finale of his Death and the Maiden string quartet. It’s not quite as intense as Erlkönig perhaps, but I think it should still be a bit more unsettling than Wang’s rather subdued performance. Wang is probably a little too normal still to capture Schubert when he is at his most neurotic. Perhaps she will identify better with his sense of dread after spending a few more years in airport lounges.

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Evgeny Kissin

Evgeny Kissin

Evgeny Kissin

I knew that his days as a wunderkind with steely fingers and precocious hair were a long time in the past,  but I was still surprised to see that Evgeny Kissin is turning 40 this year (and even more so that we share a birthday, a fact not noted by Wikipedia). Nevertheless, he is still a reliable box-office draw. Chicago’s Symphony Center was packed on Sunday, with extra seats for his adoring fans set up on stage around the piano. When he emerged from the side door, he looked every inch the glamorous virtuoso in white tie and tails, although I thought his rather pale Italianate looks might be better suited to an operatic tenor in a biopic of Caruso’s younger years. It would not have seemed out of place if an accompanist had followed him on stage and Kissin had launched into Vesti la Giubba, though probably without the sobbing.

In fact, Kissin was there to celebrate another virtuoso pianist’s birthday, with a program dedicated to Franz Liszt in his bicentenary year, including one of the greatest works in the romantic piano repertoire, his B-minor Sonata. The program was actually rather serious, starting the first half with the most reflective of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies, Ricordanza, before ending with the sonata, and starting the second half with the tragic melodrama of Funerailles and the Byronic brooding of the Vallée d’Obermann. It goes without saying that Kissin has the technique for this music, but he also understands the style with appropriate phrasing, sometimes declamatory, sometimes more inward, and reasonable tempi, faster than most, but usually not vulgar. There was plenty to satisfy those who were there to see dazzling pianism. Even the gentle Ricordanza requires plenty of filigree finger work, which needs to sound completely effortless if it is to provide a suitable garland to frame its nostalgic reminiscences. Nobody dispatches these ad libitum passages with such luxuriant ease as Kissin does. But he also displayed imagination, for example at the start of the Funerailles, percussively striking the deep bass notes to sound like the tolling of an ominous bell. This was followed by a suitably plangent, rather forlorn, melody, before the desperate final march, somewhat reminiscent of Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise, a blur of left-hand octaves commemorating a failed Hungarian uprising in 1848.

The sonata was similarly well dispatched. However, what struck me most was how lightly pedalled much of the sonata was. Most pianists depend on the sustaining pedal to smooth over the more awkward passages, but not Kissin, whose fingers don’t need any such subterfuge. In one passage, it gave the complex texture a remarkable transparency, as his left hand danced lightly but audibly under the right hand’s complex arpeggios. It’s a mixed blessing though, because hearing all the notes can make some of the high speed pyrotechnics, which are meant to propel the music with dramatic urgency, seem like so much note spinning, something that Kissin didn’t entirely avoid at the speeds he chose.

The emotional heart of the sonata occurs just before the rapid fugato that leads to the sonata’s big climax. A series of quiet scales, marked molto eguale, rise and fall above the gentlest of chords, dying away to the tenderest expression of the main repeated note theme. I heard Claudio Arrau play the Liszt Sonata a couple of times in the seventies, and at this point, he always produced an extraordinarily hushed intensity, every note conveying a sense of ecstatic communion with the transcendental. Arrau was in rapture. I have judged every other performance since then by this passage. Brendel, whose performance of the work I admire enormously in other respects, unfortunately flubs this test, playing the scales almost perfunctorily. Kissin was quiet enough, but I had the impression that he was going through the motions; everything was well judged, expressive, beautifully played, but he seems always to be playing a role, rather than inhabiting it and feeling it. Whenever I feel this way about a performance, I am aware that communication requires a partnership by both the player and the listener, and perhaps it is my own engagement that is lacking, especially before the restorative glass of red wine in the interval, but I have felt this way with Kissin before and rarely do throughout a recital with other pianists.

I felt particularly justified in my reservations by the final piece in Kissin’s recital, Venezia e Napoli. Personally, I found this music a welcome relief after the romantic narcissism of Vallée d’Obermann, a piece I have never warmed to in the best of performances. The opening Gondoliera is a particular favourite of mine, a beguiling portrait of Venice veiled in mists, evoking Turner’s depictions of the city. Marc-André Hamelin played it in Chicago last year, and although I felt he glossed over some important details (such as the fact that gondolas float on water), the performance ended in a magical stillness. You could sense that this was a piece that Hamelin genuinely loved. Kissin played with his customary skill, certainly not inexpressively, but rather than let the final chords linger in our imagination as Hamelin did, he launched into the subsequent Canzone as soon as possible, impatient to show off his rapid tremolos. My conclusion was that Hamelin chose the work because he loved Gondoliera, but didn’t object to the applause that was bound to follow the bravura repeated notes and leaping chords of the closing Tarantella. With Kissin, I am not so sure.

It’s wrong to attempt a psychological diagnosis from afar, but difficult to resist none-the-less. My guess is that Kissin is bored by his own virtuosity and the adulation it brings. He knows what to do, and can do it with such facility that it is no longer a challenge (although he is not immune to hitting the odd wrong note). I doubt whether he is like François-René Duchable, who so despised his own virtuosity and, I think, resented losing his childhood to relentless practice, that he planned to end his career by making a grand piano explode in mid-air and burn his own recital suit (sadly, I don’t think these plans were ever realized). As an encore, Kissin played Liszt’s homage to Schubert, Soirées de Vienne, with genuine charm and affection, so the musical spark is still occasionally there and perhaps he lights it regularly when I’m not there to criticize.

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