Rhinegold Photo credit: © Norbert Kniat / DG

Stephen Wigler

Thinking Big: Yuja Wang

4:15, 17th March 2017

She may be tiny in stature and on stage her slinky dresses are clearly meant to thrill. Once at the keyboard, however, the 30-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang cuts a seriously commanding figure who tackles the most challenging repertoire with fearless self-confidence and profound artistry. Stephen Wigler meets a sensational young player who seems to defy expectations at every turn

I HAVE MET MANY CELEBRITY musicians in my life, but this time as I wait for my famous guest in a restaurant on New York’s Upper West Side, I’m more nervous than usual. My apprehension is fuelled by several factors: my interviewee is very attractive – almost intimidatingly so; she achieved celebrity early, when she was still in her teens; she is extraordinarily gifted, scaling the Everests of the concerto repertoire with what seems like insouciant disregard for their difficulty, whether it be Rachmaninov, Prokofiev or Bartók.

Wang’s appearance as she emerges onto the stage creates almost as much of a stir as her electrifying performances. In a New Yorker magazine profile last September, Janet Malcolm described the pianist’s Hammerklavier Sonata thus: ‘Her back was bare… She looked like a dominatrix or a lion tamer’s assistant. She had come to tame the beast of a piece, this half-naked woman in sadistic high heels. Take that, and that, Beethoven!’

Having seen her perform, I had decided she must be arrogant, so utterly assured and formidable was her presence on stage. Indeed, one of her contemporaries, who has known her since their childhood in Beijing, describes her ‘as the most confident person I’ve ever known’. All in all, I expected to be in the company of a predatory half-leopardess, as played by the young Nastassja Kinski in Cat People.

Imagine my surprise when I notice a waitress pointing at my table for the benefit of a young woman who has just come in from the rain. She is beautiful, but not in any way that could be called dangerous. Dressed modestly in sneakers, loose-fitting and comfortable-looking blue jeans and a sweatshirt, there is none of the forbidding glamour she exudes on stage. She approaches me, wearing a genuinely warm, sweet smile.

‘Hi, I’m Yuja,’ she says as she shakes my hand and sits down to order a hamburger and fries. First impressions: I knew she wasn’t a tall person, but I wasn’t expecting her to be as tiny as Alicia de Larrocha or Maria João Pires – and even more slender than both.

There’s nothing small about her playing, of course. In the passages that call upon the piano to create the most thunderous sonorities – in Liszt, Prokofiev or Rachmaninov – Wang effortlessly matches the climaxes achieved by pianists such as Denis Matsuev, Horacio Gutierrez or Alexander Toradze, all more than twice her size.

She interrupts my thoughts. ‘What were you reading when I walked in?’ she asks, as she points at my notebook. ‘Oh,’ I say, caught off guard. ‘Those are just some of the questions I’ve been mulling over. People want to know how you choose your, er, concert attire.’ Her good-natured laughter rings out over the hubbub of the other diners: ‘I could tell you that I really like the designers whose clothes I choose. And that since I’m not yet 30 [she turned 30 on 10 February], I still look fine in the sort of stuff I wear. But the truth is that I’m very self-conscious about how tiny I am. When I dress the way I do,’ she says, as she bites into her burger, ‘I don’t feel tiny and I don’t look tiny – not even when I’m seated in front of a nine-foot Steinway.’

She eats with gusto, finishing off the burger by licking the melted cheese from her fingers: ‘God, I can’t believe what a slob I can be!’ she laughs.

 

LATER THAT DAY, I HAVE dinner with the pianist Horacio Gutierrez. Gutierrez particularly admires the way Yuja performs one of his specialities, Prokofiev’s Concerto No 2. He is surprised to learn how small she is: ‘On stage, she doesn’t seem small,’ he says. ‘For one thing, she looks like she has large hands; and for another, there are her muscles! She has the thighs, the shoulders and the arms of an athlete. She certainly does not play small.’

Actually, Wang’s hand-size, while not enormous, is quite large – about the same as that of Martha Argerich, Mitsuko Uchida and Hélène Grimaud. What’s more, she has the flexibility for the wide stretches in Rachmaninov and the hailstorms of double octaves in Liszt. ‘No one since Martha has played the big repertoire in so big a way,’ Gutierrez observes. He is not the first person to note Wang’s resemblance to Argerich. She possesses much the same derring-do virtuosity, explosive temperament and charisma that make Argerich’s audiences stand up, stamp their feet and cheer.

It was, in fact, as a replacement for Argerich that Wang had her first big break. In March 2007, Argerich had been scheduled to give four subscription concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, appearing with guest conductor Charles Dutoit (Argerich’s former husband) in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. Wang recalls how Argerich casually directed the spotlight in her direction: ‘With Martha it was like, “I’m tired… Do you want to play with the Boston Symphony for me?” I replied, Of course – as if you even need to ask the question!’

At the time, the 19-year-old pianist did not know the Tchaikovsky, but she’s an extraordinarily fast learner. I was in the audience at Symphony Hall on the first evening of the series, and the audience’s initial disgruntlement dissipated with the startling impact of her opening chords; by the concerto’s final notes, they had become a cheering mob, giving her a standing ovation. Her interpretation had a fearlessness and abundance of temperament that out-Argeriched Argerich herself.

 

BORN INTO AN ARTISTIC family in Beijing (her mother was a dancer and her father a percussionist), Yuja Wang, began playing the piano aged six. A year later, her extraordinary gifts being apparent, she was enrolled to study at the Beijing Music Conservatoire, and by 15, her ‘intelligence and good taste’ as a pianist won her a prestigious place at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

She was still a student at the Curtis when she was asked by Argerich to come to the rescue in Boston, thus becoming an overnight sensation. However, many in the classical piano world already knew who Yuja Wang was. I had first heard of her five years earlier, when the conductor David Zinman gave me a broadcast recording of the 15-year-old playing Beethoven’s Concerto No 4 in G major with his Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. I was astonished by its depth and musical sophistication. I was not surprised to discover that the teenaged pianist already had management. Shortly after, a friend who worked for what was then Yuja’s concert agency, Opus 3 Artists, gave me a CD of a recital programme. It contained, among other things, performances of Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor and Stravinsky’s Petrushka that were as stunning as the performances Evgeny Kissin had given when he was Yuja’s age.

Even before standing in for Argerich in Boston, there had been other, less publicised, substitutions for pre-eminent pianists, including Evgeny Kissin, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia. It was only a question of time before Wang stood shoulder-to-shoulder with these greats. Soon after Boston came a recording contract from Deutsche Grammophon; and in the 10 years since, she has become one of the tiny handful of pianists whose recordings people actually buy and who can reliably be depended upon to sell out large concert halls.

There are several ways in which Yuja Wang clearly surpasses Argerich. The most important of these lies in her curiosity about the full extent of the piano repertoire and her fearless approach to programming. Argerich has been playing essentially the same repertoire for the last 50 years: only one Bartók concerto – No 3, the easiest; one Prokofiev concerto, the popular No 3; one Prokofiev sonata, the relatively short No 7; the first three of the five Beethoven concertos and only two or three of his piano sonatas; and very little contemporary music.

Wang, by contrast, seems to have an appetite for everything. She plays Brahms’ Concerto No 1, but also the composer’s even longer and more challenging second concerto. With the possible exceptions of Vladimir Ashkenazy and Yefim Bronfman in their younger days, she may be the only pianist I know who programmes in the same season what are considered the three titans of the piano concerto form: Bartók 2, Prokofiev 2 and Rachmaninov 3. She plays the two longest and most difficult Prokofiev Sonatas, Nos 6 and 8, as well as the solo version of Ravel’s La Valse (Argerich plays only the two-piano version); she programmes both books of  Brahms’ Paganini Variations (Argerich has never programmed even one). One could go on.

 

IT’S CLEAR THAT THE CHIEF reasons for the breadth and depth of Wang’s repertoire are her curiosity and the remarkable memory that permits her to satisfy that curiosity. Yet she’s also not afraid to walk on stage with music. She thinks it is ridiculous to take time off, as some very well-known pianists have done – in extreme cases for sabbaticals lasting several months – to learn difficult repertoire. Search online for ‘Yuja Wang, Bartók Concerto No 2’ and you will find several videos of her playing this monstrously difficult piece with the music in front of her. The performances are magnificent and she scarcely ever looks at the music, so why does she use it? ‘At one of those performances [of the Bartók Second], one of the members of the orchestra asked me about it,’ she says. ‘I replied, “Wait a minute! Are you not using music?”’

‘When you reach a certain age, no one minds if you play with music in front of you,’ she continues. ‘I’m sure nobody raised objections back in the days when Richter and Curzon began doing it or today when Menahem Pressler does it. Everybody knows that they know everything about the music they play. But audiences shouldn’t mind no matter what age the player is – not even if they’re young!’

Wang believes people tend to have a ‘misconception about the use of music’ – namely that if a performer uses music they are not prepared. ‘That’s simply not true,’ she asserts. ‘When I use music, it’s not because it’s a security blanket. Instead of worrying about forgetting, you can focus on communicating. What’s on the page – even if you’re not reading it – begins to issue forth from you with a force that’s otherwise hard to imagine.’

‘Even the greatest pianists have problems with the fear of forgetting,’ she says. She mentions one of the greatest living interpreters of Beethoven and Schubert, whose career began to hit roadblocks as he approached middle age about 30 years ago. Now, in his 70s – because he’s no longer embarrassed to use music on stage – his appearances have become more frequent and his reputation has begun to resume much of its former lustre.

‘He was always able to play wonderfully,’ she says, ‘but his nervousness on stage sometimes made it hard for him. Since that kind of fear is something that – to some degree – afflicts all of us, I don’t want to have to worry about it.’

 

‘ANY OTHER QUESTIONS ON your notebook?’ Yuja asks when our post-lunch cappuccinos arrive. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘it would be good to know why, when you are still so young, you seem to want to take on the most monumental challenges in the repertoire – pieces for which most pianists wait until they are fully mature? Why, for example, did you decide to programme Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata before doing any of the other Beethoven sonatas? And why are you planning to introduce Bach’s Goldberg Variations before performing any of his smaller works?’

Yuja thinks for a moment: ‘I played the Hammerklavier when I turned 29 and I will be playing the Goldbergs when I am 30,’ she says, with a smile. ‘I guess you could say that I’m playing pieces that have a numerical significance for whatever age I am.’ She laughs at her own joke: the Hammerklavier is Beethoven’s 29th piano sonata and the Goldberg is made up of 30 variations upon its opening aria.

Wang turns serious: ‘I think people often have pretty set ideas about what age you must be in order to play something,’ she says. ‘But when there are rules, I just go ahead and break them. And anyway, what’s the big deal about works like the Hammerklavier or the Goldbergs?’

She is correct, of course: the younger you are as a pianist, the easier it is to learn the most complex works, as Gary Graffman, Yuja’s teacher at the Curtis, has explained: ‘When you’re young, you’re usually too dumb to know how difficult some things are – you just go ahead and learn them. I sometimes kick myself because I put things off until I felt ready for them. When the time came, I was too scared to attempt them.’

‘The way most people learn is to start with something simpler and build toward things that are more complex,’ says Yuja. ‘But ever since I was a child, I’ve never done things that way. I always preferred to start with the biggest, most difficult work.

When I began to programme Liszt, I started with the Sonata in B minor. I’ve played a lot of Beethoven throughout my life, including four of the five concertos when I was still in my teens – leaving No 1 for later. However, I had never performed any of the sonatas in my recital programmes and at CD signings, people used to ask me “Why don’t you play any Beethoven?” I heard this for about three or four years, and then I thought – You want to hear a Beethoven sonata? Well I’m gonna give you the one that lasts 50 minutes!’

In fact, Yuja’s performance of the Hammerklavier lasts slightly more than 40 minutes, significantly quicker than well-known versions by, for example, Emil Gilels, Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim. But while Yuja took only a few months to learn this gigantic piece, she studied and thought about it intensely. She agrees with András Schiff that it is too often performed in an overly ponderous and monumental manner.  Beethoven’s metronome markings for the first two movements are controversially fast, but it is clear that they are meant to tell the interpreter the tempo must be fast. ‘If you try to make it beautiful, then you miss the energy and urgency that are the point of the piece,’ Yuja says. ‘When I was learning it, I made myself listen to other late Beethoven pieces all the time – the Große Fugue and the other late string quartets, the Missa Solemnis and the Diabelli Variations. Are these the first things I want to hear when I wake up? No. But that energy and strength in the music is what you need to tap into if you play the Hammerklavier.’

Wang’s view of the piece may change in some details as she grows older. Nevertheless, it is already a great interpretation – easily the equal of the outstanding performances given by Ashkenazy, Pollini and Barenboim at her age. The first movement flows effortlessly and energetically at high velocity, but does not ignore intricate details, inner voices and harmonic colourings, all the while making its classical structure remarkably lucid. The Scherzo skips along mischievously. The slow movement is ethereal and thoughtful, rather than a self-consciously profound expression of immeasurable woe. The final fugue illuminates the complexities of Beethoven’s contrapuntal art with X-ray clarity.

For a pianist still a year shy of 30, Wang’s performance of the Hammerklavier is a magnificent achievement. If it is not as probing or profound as it could be, she has another 40 or 50 years to work on it. ‘I am years from really understanding it,’ Yuja admits. ‘The more I play it, the more complexities I discover in it. There are layers beneath layers in that piece, and there are so many of them. They’ll only reveal themselves over the years,’ she says, adding with a laugh: ‘Whether by playing it or by not playing it, I don’t know!’

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