While pianist Yuja Wang has been a frequent visitor to San Francisco for several years, her recital last night in Davies Symphony Hall was only her third appearance under the auspices of San Francisco Performances (SFP). While she has been seen regularly in Davies as a concerto soloist, her last recital performance there was in October of 2013 as part of the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series. Her most recent SFP recital, on the other hand, took place in Herbst Theatre in June of 2010.
Certain elements of repertoire seem to recur consistently in her program preparation. Both of the aforementioned recitals featured her interest in the music of Alexander Scriabin, one of the most adventurous composers to explore the transition between late nineteenth-century romanticism and the departure from tonality that began to emerge during the turn of that century into the twentieth. Wang also seems to have an ongoing interest in Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of the songs of Franz Schubert.
These two interests framed last night’s program. The entire second half of the evening was devoted to seven compositions by Scriabin whose durations ranged from moderate down to breathtaking brevity. At the other end she began with Liszt’s transcriptions of two songs from the D. 957 Schwanengesang (“Liebesbotschaft” and “Aufenthalt”) and the final song from the D. 795 Die schöne Müllerin, “Der Müller und der Bach.” This time, however, the transcriptions served to introduce the D. 959 sonata in A major, the second of the three massive sonatas that Schubert wrote in September of 1828, only months before his death.
The greatest pleasure of the evening came in the discovery that Wang’s appreciation for Schubert’s music did not always have to be refracted through Liszt’s transcriptions. This was not a matter of her previously having been shy of extended duration, since her approach to Robert Schumann’s Opus 13 “Symphonic Etudes” in 2010 demonstrated her command of the overall structural architecture and the role played by each of those etudes in that architecture. What did matter was her ability to provide her own personal stamp on interpretation of a sonata that has been approached by so many other pianists. Furthermore, her interpretation prioritized the music as Schubert had written it, rather than trying to establish originality by overloading idiosyncratic distortions.
This was a reading that recognized the cyclic nature of Schubert’s overall plan while also honoring each of the individual “stops” encountered over the course of the score’s journey. Much of this involved meticulous attention to details of dynamic level, recognizing that Schubert would often notate for effect, rather than means. She also appreciated that the middle section of the second (Andantino) movement (which I have always taken as Schubert satisfying the need to write just one more impromptu) has to let go of any subservience to metrical pulse, unleashing a salvo of improvisatory gestures.
In other words that personal stamp was all about the energy deriving from scrupulously modulating both amplitude and the flow of time itself. The result combined the spontaneity of in-the-moment interpretation with an unfailing respect for the letter of the score. I had thought of hoping that this sonata would find its way onto Wang’s next recording, but I suspect that much of the power of last night’s interpretation emerged from creating a sense of immediacy that gets lost on any recording when one listens to it too frequently.
That sense of immediacy was similarly established in her Scriabin interpretations. Indeed, much of the music in the second half of the program had an improvisatorial feel to it, whether the music involved the exploration of a single brief gesture or the more extended form of a single-movement sonata. Wang used her own sense of almost immediate transition between some of the compositions to organize this portion of the program into two sections, each of which seemed to have its own logic of integration.
The first of these covered the period between 1894 and 1900, almost merging two preludes related in both spirit and key (the Opus 9 prelude for the left hand in C-sharp minor and the F-sharp minor prelude from the Opus 11 set) with the more extended Opus 28 fantasy, which followed Wang’s “circle of fourths” into B minor. The second section begin with the B-flat minor prelude from the Opus 37 set and then ventured to pieces without key specification, the two “poems” of Opus 63 (played in reverse order), which then, through a transition that felt like an alternative to modulation, moved into the Opus 68 (“black mass”) sonata almost seamlessly. This resulted in a free-floating experience that complemented the more journey-like approach to the first set of Scriabin selections.
The overall effect was one of moving from the clearly defined melody and harmony of the left-hand prelude into a gradually accumulating fog. That sense of encroaching moodiness was then burned off by the dazzling light of Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey.” This music is all fireworks, and Wang breezed through its incessant onslaught of technical demands as if she were playing her warming-up exercises. “Islamey” tends to be popular for its particularly Russian take on Orientalism; but it is the technical challenges that capture audience attention. By the end of the piece, Wang had the entire house eating out of her hand.
At the other end of the program, her approach to the Liszt transcriptions involved taking on similar technical challenges, even if they were not quite as overwhelming. However, they also demand a sensitivity to the song that Liszt chose to transcribe. Liszt made this clear by writing the words of the text above the appropriate notes in his transcriptions. Within this framework, Wang was most effective when dealing with the more intimate poetry behind “Liebesbotschaft” and “Der Müller und der Bach.” However, while she had her usual command of all the notes that Liszt poured into his transcription of the stormy “Aufenthalt,” the spirit of that particular poem seems to have gotten lost in her interpretation, making for the only real disappointment of the evening’s program.
Wang returned to transcription for the first of the two encores she took, Carl Tausig’s treatment of “Der Contrabandiste,” from the supplement to Robert Schumann’s Opus 74 Spanisches Liederspiel. This was a favorite encore piece for Sergei Rachmaninoff, and it is not as attentive to the rollicking text as either Schubert or Liszt was to the poetry behind the song setting. Rather, Wang’s selection seemed to reflect the decision that the only way to follow Balakirev’s fireworks would be with Tausig’s fireworks.
Things then quieted down with the second encore. Wang selected Frédéric Chopin’s E minor waltz, the second of the three Opus 64 waltzes. The last time I encountered Wang playing Chopin, I accused her of never really capturing the spirit of the music. This particular reading lacked any rhythmic sense of the music being a waltz, let alone that the tempo marking was Tempo giusto. Instead of a rubato through which the three-beat metrical framework acquires its dance-like qualities, Wang pushed and pulled at the pulse itself as if it were an oversized lump of taffy. Had she paid as much attention to the letter of Chopin that she had given to Schubert, this would have been an engaging waltz; but that was not to be.