Yuja Wang, Toronto

05.05.10
Yuja Wang
National Post

By Arthur Kaptainis

What is it about Calgary? I mean, the Flames did not even make the playoffs, but somehow this city cranks out pianists the way Tim Horton does doughnuts. This week Montrealers hear Jan Lisiecki, 15, Calgary-born and bred. Saturday night in Toronto I caught Yuja Wang, 23, Beijing-born but educated during her critical teen years at Mount Royal Conservatory in Calgary. Now she is a major star, Deutsche Grammophon contract, big recitals, major orchestras, the whole shebang.

Did I say shebang? Wang is indeed a formidable technician, a step ahead of many players we suppose to be considerably more than acceptable in this department. To hear the explosive right-hand octave triplets in Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Erlkönig juxtaposed with the thunderous rising theme in the left was to be was to be put in mind of some of the biggies of the last century. (“Vladimir Horowitz was a very big influence on me,” Wang told BBC Music Magazine. Is that a fact?) Agitated bits in Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes were about as rapid and impeccably punctuated as they could be. Nor did the spacier posthumous numbers lack anything in delicacy. Was there some element of philosophy missing in the midrange? Or is this just the impression inevitably made by a player who operates so potently at the extremes?

Maybe all the emotional toggling in Schumann made a similarly hot-and-cold sequence of six Scriabin pieces (as opposed to the 11 promised by the program) seem a tad predictable after intermission. Then came Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata, as macho as can be imagined in the outer movements, yet quixotic in the Allegretto and warmly expansive in the waltz. Think of names like Kissin and Pogorelich among living pianists if you want to make a meaningful comparison. Yuja Wang is that good.

Among her encores was a ludicrously (if amusingly) pyrotechnic fantasy by Arcadi Volodos on Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, apparently further modified by Wang herself. And as if to remind us that she has more than fingers to offer, she produced exquisitely off-beat Chopin Waltz in C Sharp Minor, the long tones elongated and dotted figures punched out to perfection. This, in its quiet way, was the zenith of the recital for me.

I have not mentioned that all the sound and fury was produced by a tiny woman with short-cropped hair who does not, to look at her, weigh much over 95 pounds. Nor have I mentioned that the recital happened before a good crowd in Koerner Hall, the superduper 1135-seater attached to the Royal Conservatory of Music. Wang cancelled her Montreal Symphony Orchestra gig a few weeks ago because of the proverbial raisons de santé. She appears to have recovered nicely.