Those who have been following the repertoire choices made by pianist Yuja Wang on her many visits to San Francisco may have observed that she has a comfort zone that seems to begin early in the twentieth century and advances into the present day with a marked preference for composers from Eastern Europe. As a recitalist in the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Wang drew upon that comfort zone to provide three solid pillars of support for the beginning, middle, and end of her program. The composers who provided those pillars, in that order, were Sergei Prokofiev, Nikolai Kapustin, and Igor Stravinsky. (Stravinsky’s music was first performed in Paris, but its thematic material was thoroughly Russian.)
The program opened with Prokofiev’s Opus 28 sonata in A minor (the third), completed in 1917. During World War I, after having established a reputation in Europe with support from champions like Sergei Diaghilev, Prokofiev returned to the Moscow Conservatory to avoid conscription; and, like his more familiar “Classical” symphony (Opus 25 in D major, his first), Opus 28 was composed there. Its single-movement structure is both dazzling and compact, more like a miniature suite of episodes reflecting alternating moods than a traditionally organized sonata. Its dissonances were probably outrageous (and provocative) when it was first performed; but today they remain refreshingly stimulating.
The music thrusts itself upon the listener with strong machine-like rhythms. However, after the initial burst of the opening, more a dense contrapuntal Web covering the full range of the piano keyboard than a “first theme,” Wang quickly tempered her performance with nuanced approaches to both dynamics and tempo. Those approaches endowed each of the episodes with its own characteristic personality and, as a result, presented the sonata as a whole with an almost narrative-like logic. Through Wang’s interpretation this sonata was far more than an avant-garde gesture from a “bad boy at work.” Instead, it was a bold and confident voice of a particularly individualistic approach to the modernism of the time.
It may also have been a calculated response to the complex and dissonant approaches to counterpoint that Igor Stravinsky had been taking earlier in that decade, particularly through his scores for the ballets “Petrushka” and “The Rite of Spring,” both produced by Diaghilev. “Petrushka” was first performed in 1911. Ten years later Stravinsky met and befriended Arthur Rubinstein, who, at the age of 24, already had a rising career as a pianist. Stravinsky learned that Rubinstein had been playing music from “Petrushka” at parties, where it would be well received even by those who thought they did not like Stravinsky’s music.
Stravinsky was originally miffed by what he took to be a glib remark. However, as the conversation continued, he realized that Rubinstein really did understand what was going on in the score; and he promised to compose for him a three-movement sonata based on the material of “Petrushka.” Stravinsky later observed that this was not a transcription. He was not trying to reproduce the orchestral score; and the piano version, published as “Trois mouvements de Petrouchka” (three movement from “Petrushka”), involves significant cuts in the material selected for each of the movements. Stravinsky also confessed that he could not play this piano version himself. However, it was his gift to Rubinstein; and the only sad part of the story is that Rubinstein never recorded it.
This was the closing “pillar” of Wang’s program; and, fortunately, she has recorded it on her Transformation album for Deutsche Grammophon. Like the Prokofiev sonata, this music is refreshingly stimulating in its dissonances; and, even if it was not intended as a transcription of the original ballet score, it captures much of the energetic bustle that goes into the crowd scenes choreographed by Michel Fokine. So much of Fokine’s choreography involves the clockwork precision of many loci of action all on stage at the same time. Stravinsky’s embodiment of this overlay of activities in his score was an extraordinary achievement (as well as an omen of the score for “The Rite of Spring”); and the skill with which he distilled all of that activity down to the constraints of two hands on a single piano keyboard is nothing short of awesome.
Wang’s approach to this music was as stunning as it was faithful to all of Stravinsky’s meticulous attention to detail. Her recording was released in 2010, but she continues to perform this music with the fresh spontaneity of having discovered it for the first time. Again, as with the Prokofiev sonata, her approach to the thematic material is highly nuanced, a quality that is vital to making sure that each melodic element gets to “say its piece” with focus and clarity. Whether or not Wang is familiar with Fokine’s choreography, her interpretation of this piano version goes to a considerable length to capture the essence of the ballet as it had originally been conceived.
Wang’s “middle pillar” was “Variations for piano,” Kapustin’s Opus 41. This was composed in 1984, and it is not so much a set of variations on a theme as it is a series of approaches taken to a motivic fragment (which bears far more than a family resemblance to the opening bassoon gesture in “The Rite of Spring”). The approaches themselves owe much to a variety of jazz influences, the most prominent being George Gershwin and Art Tatum. The technique, however, demands virtuoso skills that go far higher than Tatum’s pay-grade than even the most adventurous jazz lover would dare imagine. (That may sound like sacrilege to Tatum fans, but Kapustin’s inventiveness really did take the master’s style across a major quantum leap.)
Once again, however, that technique resided solidly in Wang’s comfort zone. She breezed through each of Kapustin’s “variations” with all of the precision and grace that was so admirable in Tatum’s own keyboard work. She was also entirely focused on making sure that every one of Kapustin’s gestures registered with just the right rhetorical effect. In other words she offered up Kapustin’s music with the same intense understanding she had brought to both Prokofiev and Stravinsky, which is exactly what his music deserved.
Between each pair of these “pillars” Wang inserted compositions by Frédéric Chopin. These were less effective, leading me to wonder whether they had been inserted through some misplaced sense of obligation or, worse yet, pressure. Certainly, the decision to perform Chopin’s Opus 58 sonata in B minor (the third) after Prokofiev’s Opus 28 did not do Chopin any favors. Where Opus 28 emerged as en economically compact rethinking of a traditional form, Opus 58 came across as a sprawling struggle to work with four large-scale movements from a composer who was always, by nature, a miniaturist. Wang tried nobly to apply her techniques of dynamic and rhythmic control to make some sense out of the opening movement, but it was a losing battle. More disconcerting was that, even when Chopin was more in his element in the middle two movements, a scherzo and a nocturne, Wang never seemed to catch the spirit; and the scherzo went by in a Molto vivace blur.
Similarly, after the intermission, the Kapustin was followed by the first of the Opus 48 nocturnes (in C minor) and the Opus 47 ballade in A-flat major (the third). Wang gave these somewhat more sensitive accounts. However, after Wang had escalated the jazz idiom to Kapustin’s empyrean heights, the transcendent qualities of these two Chopin compositions seemed to have eluded her.
Wang concluded the evening with three encores. As if to remind the audience of Tatum’s influence on Kapustin, she began with his arrangement of Vincent Youmans’ “Tea for Two.” This was followed by Vladimir Horowitz’ “Carmen variations,” an over-the-top paraphrase of the Gypsy dance from Georges Bizet’s Carmen. The final encore was a solo piano arrangement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” originally the fourteenth in his Opus 34 collection of songs. The Rachmaninoff brought the evening to the calm conclusion it deserved, and the Horowitz was executed with all the verve and panache it demanded. However, the real treat was listening to Wang channeling Tatum’s spirit, honoring the full scope of both his technical proficiency and his inventiveness.