Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms,Ravel,Scarlatti,Stravinsky
WORKS: Stravinsky: Three movements from Petrushka; D Scarlatti: Sonata in E, K380; in F minor/C, K466; Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Paganini; Ravel: La valse
PERFORMER: Yuja Wang (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 477 8795


Chinese-born, but New York-based and a pupil of Gary Gaffman, Yuja Wang has been attracting international attention since she stood in for Martha Argerich for a concert series in Boston in 2007. Her debut disc – of etudes by Chopin, Scriabin, Liszt and Ligeti – was BBC Music Magazine’s Instrumental Choice last July and is now nominated for a 2010 Grammy award.

She calls her recital ‘transformation’, but it took me some time to appreciate the multifarious levels on which that concept applies. Her programme is symmetrical. At either end, a composer’s own transcription of an orchestral dance-piece: Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka to start and Ravel’s La valse at the end. Sandwiched between these and the central work are two Scarlatti sonatas, each in implied dance-rhythm, though K380 could also be viewed as a march.

The central work is Brahms’s Paganini Variations, Paganini and Scarlatti being close kin in virtuosity. Brahms of course transforms Paganini, but Yuja Wang transforms Brahms by taking the (always permissible, but these days pretty unfamiliar) course of reshuffling the 24 variations to bring out a new range of contrasts and perspectives. To be precise, she plays the first 12 variations of Book 1 in their usual order, but reshuffles Book 2, and reserves the final two variations and coda of Book 1 to round off the entire sequence.

In her own words, ‘transformation’ is evident in ‘Brahms transforming his theme 27 times; Ravel transforming the waltz by testing it to oblivion; and Stravinsky’s puppet Petrushka being temporarily transformed into a human being before finally reverting to puppethood’. That doesn’t explain where Scarlatti comes in, but the effect of his pieces is to provide an intermezzo of calm contemplation between bouts of pyrotechnics. Such keen, speculative intelligence is evident in many aspects of her playing, complemented by a fairly staggering technique.

The Petrushka movements may not surpass Evgeny Kissin (RCA) or Peter Hill (Naxos) for insight, but they have a unique fizz and excitement and quite the most orchestral range of colour I’ve heard. La valse, by contrast, she plays as a baleful, weighty, almost Brahmsian piece, which doesn’t in fact do violence to Ravel’s dark-hued, obsessive conception. Her poise in the two Scarlatti sonatas is admirable, the textures beautifully transparent, the interplay of voices superbly balanced.


Finally the rapid, incisive characterisation of each Brahms variation makes them, in her re-ordering, a veritable kaleidoscope of the familiar and the unexpected. The piano sound is rather close-miked, but this produces an incisively clear high register and a very colourful range of middle and low sonorities, which absolutely suits this repertoire. Altogether one of the most stimulating recitals I’ve heard this year. Calum MacDonald