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Compact Power

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Yuja Wang, Pianist

Yuja has always been known as much for her daring stage attire as her brilliance as a virtuoso. Indeed, when she took to the Steinway when I saw her at Symphony Hall in Boston, there was a wry sense that her elegant tight-fitting dress earned its own extra hardy rush of applause. How the woman ever feels comfortable thrashing around the keyboard, playing massive works in the repertoire, is anyone's guess, but not knowing the first thing about women's fashion, I'll not presume any further. What is obvious is that she is a very small lady so perhaps wearing ice-pick high heels and a bosom hugging piece of high-end couture makes her feel she can add to her presence? After all, the stage (the recital stage especially) can be a forbiddingly lonely place - the reason the greatest of all pianists, Martha Argerich, has barely given a solo recital in the past four decades.

But there is no need for emotional crutches. Yes, Yuja is a stunningly beautiful woman, but she could wear a paper bag and she'd still be utterly riveting as a pianist. What is interesting, though, and unexpected given the attention that must surely follow her where ever she travels, is the disarming shimmer of staid nervousness she conveys just before striking the first notes, a gesture which ripples through the audience, only adding to the thrall of what you are about to witness. She approached the piano very quickly after making a modest bow and, cutting short the rapturous applause which accompanied her arrival, sat down without the customary stool-adjusting antics which are a part of a concert pianist's routine these days, and seemed to want to get on with business right away. Dare I say it, but for a moment she looked a tad uncomfortable. However, while there may be a fashionista ostentation which accompanies her external celebrity status, what is clear is that she wants to take as little attention away as possible from her actual music. As such this indicates that her playing is rooted in utter devotion to her craft, a piousness which can only originate from some deep inner resolve and respect for the music itself: this is why that tinge of nerves and discomfort are so affecting. Plus, some music I imagine is genuinely daunting for a performer. While a refined Mozart concerto may be ergonomically contained for a set of ten fingers and two wrists, other pieces are warhorses which demand much more combative stamina. I always wonder whether a pianist has a similar feeling to an endurance runner about to set off for a marathon in the Yukon before commencing one of these pieces. Anyway, from that very immediate run up the scale in Shostakovich's first piano concerto, you just knew you were going to be enthralled.

The Guardian has just named Yuja's recording of a Berlin recital as one it's classical albums of the year. I immediately downloaded it. And loved every second: particularly as she brings new compact power to Rachmaninov's famous G-minor prelude and then navigates with iron delicacy the thin line between the sublime and the outright crazed in Prokofiev's mighty 8th sonata. Many other young pianists are cited as bringing new insight to the standard canon - Levit, Trifinov, Piemontesi - but somehow none seem bold enough (yet) to imbue their pianism with the dangerous flare that Wang is capable of unleashing.



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