Yuja Wang

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As the 22-year-old pianist makes her London debut, she tells us why she loves Ligeti, Horowitz and Bernstein 

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You're playing Ravel's Piano Concerto and Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas this June...
This is my first time playing with the London Symphony Orchestra. I haven’t played these two concertos very often, so I’m very excited to work with Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra on that. Originally we thought we’d do the Ravel Left Hand Piano Concerto and Stravinsky’s Capriccio. But I knew these two less well than other concertos. I decided to switch to the Ravel two hands which I know the notes for so it’s easier – I learned it when I was young, I think 14. I love the piece – the second movement’s beautiful and colourful, there’s so many jazzy moments in there. So it’s going to be a very fun piece to play with Michael. And I’m going to play Prokofiev Three this summer at the Lucerne Festival. It’s another fun piece – powerful and devilish and rhythmical.

What will be the biggest challenge?
The interaction between the orchestra and me. In Chopin and Beethoven there’s more of my part, then their part, whereas in these concertos there’s interaction from the beginning. Especially in the Prokofiev. I start learning pieces by reading the full score so I know exactly what each instrument is doing. That way it’s much more interesting for me too, and it’s much more like playing chamber music than a concerto. The sound balance, and capturing the colour and the character will also be challenging.

And you've just release your debut CD, with an imaginative programme of Chopin, Scriabin, Ligeti and Liszt. Why did you choose these works?
Originally I was going to do a disc of encore pieces as I do a lot of them – you can see them on YouTube! But that would lead people to think I’m a just a young virtuosic pianist. I’d like to make a more mature statement because it’s my interpretation, the poetic part that touches people instead of the powerful technique stuff. Chopin has always been my favourite composer, so I wanted to include the Second Sonata. And then I thought of how Chopin influenced Scriabin harmonically, especially his early pieces. Then the Liszt – the Sonata takes a lifetime to learn. It’s a humongous work. I learned it when I was 15 but I’ve never really performed it. I brought it back last season and have been playing it everywhere; I read Faust and tried to understand the music. This disc is just representative of how I played it as a 21-year-old and it’s going to be very different later, hopefully. Better! All the other pieces are very dramatic, dark and intense, so the Ligeti pieces are kind of baubles in the middle, though very difficult ones. I love the two Ligeti pieces – they refresh the ear.

Who are your inspirations?
I change every week! Vladimir Horowitz was a very big influence on me. I love listening to him and never get tired of it. Also I love Alfred Cortot and Rachmaninov. Carlos Kleiber the conductor [is another] and I love Leonard Bernstein.When I moved to America when I was 14 I read the Young People's Concerts. That book was a big influence on my way of looking at Western music. I’d been learning in China and there's a different way of analysing music. I think before I thought more about how I felt the piano physically and emotionally; with him it’s more how to analayse music. He looks at music from a very musical point of view. In China we're very imaginative – we invent stories or colours or poems. He was talking about rhythm, contrapuntal lines and harmony, it was very music oriented. You have to have a good balance of both. When I was 14-15 I got to know about music theory that way – it was harmony and structure that were important. But if you have just that and no subjective feelings it won't be human.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

Audio clip: Ligeti: Etude No. 4 'Fanfares'
Image: Felix Broede

CD: Sonatas & Etudes by Chopin, Scriabin, Liszt & Ligeti
Yuja Wang (piano)
DG 477 8140   74:11 mins

For a full review of this disc, take a look at the July issue of the BBC Music Magazine. You can hear Yuja Wang playing at the Barbican on 30 June

Related links:
Evgeny Kissin tackles fiendish Prokofiev
Martha Argerich thrills with Schumann
Haochen Zhang: joint winner of the Van Cliburn competition
Idil Biret on Beethoven and Liszt