from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording
At the end of last month, Deutsche Grammophon released its latest recording of Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. Entitled The Berlin Recital, the album is a live recording of a solo recital that Wang gave in the Kammermusiksall (chamber music hall) of the Berliner Philharmonie this past June. The program consisted entirely of twentieth-century compositions by three major Russian composers, four short pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Opus 70 (tenth) sonata by Alexander Scriabin, and the Opus 84 (eighth) sonata by Sergei Prokofiev. Between the Scriabin and Prokofiev sonatas, she played three of the eighteen études that Hungarian György Ligeti composed late in the twentieth century. (The last études in the collection were actually composed after January 1, 2000; but all of Wang’s selections were earlier than that date.)
This program is nothing if not a thoroughly vivid exercise in distinctively contrasting approaches to compositions. For all those differences, however, the selections are unified in the finger-busting technical challenges they impose. One might almost say that Wang conceived of this recital to demonstrate just how much diversity there can be in the space of technically demanding writing. It is therefore important to call out the extent to which Wang always seems to find just the right expressiveness to affirm that each composition is built on a solid rhetorical foundation, no matter how technically demanding its execution may be.
The contrast in expressiveness is most evident in the two sonata selections. Scriabin’s Opus 70 was the final composition that he called a sonata. It was written in 1913, not long before the composer’s unexpected death from septicemia in 1915. (He was only 43 at the time.) Like all of the sonatas beginning with Opus 53 (the fifth), it consists of only a single movement; and like all of the sonatas beginning with Opus 62 (the sixth), it has no key signature.
The author of the Wikipedia page for this piece describes it as “highly chromatic and atonal;” and it would be fair to say that Scriabin deploys his pitch classes is such a way as to avoid any sense of a perfect cadence establishing a tonal center. In the “Harmony” entry of the 1929 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, Donald Francis Tovey wrote:
Scriabin, each of whose last five sonatas is built round its own new chord, complained shortly before his untimely death that he had, after all, not succeeded in getting away from a sophisticated dominant seventh.
If Tovey’s attribution is correct, then it would be fair to say that in his “deathbed confession,” Scriabin sold himself short. Whether or not Scriabin knew of Arnold Schoenberg’s heavy use of the perfect fourth to distance his Opus 9 (first) chamber symphony from cadences based on a dominant seventh, Scriabin used that perfect fourth heavily in in Opus 70 sonata from beginning to end; and the persistent appearance of a C-F fourth in the bass line of the final measures is quite effective in keeping the dominant seventh at bay! Had Scriabin given more thought to ambiguity, rather than traditional harmony, he might have been less dismissive in his “final judgment.”
I do not think I have had an opportunity to listen to Wang play any music based on the Second Viennese School. However, in her interpretation of Opus 70, one gets the impression that she understands the nature of ambiguity and has no trouble letting Scriabin’s harmonic ambiguities remain unresolved. At the same time she also seems to appreciate how Scriabin has created that “sense of an ending” with that persistence of C-F providing an unmistakable foundation for the last nineteen measures of the sonata.
Mind you, this is not my first encounter with Wang playing Scriabin. I believe my first was a concert performance of the F-sharp major poème (Opus 32, Number 1) in 2010; and her 2014 recital in Davies Symphony Hall included a generous serving of Scriabin, culminating in the Opus 68 (“black mass”) sonata. She has a long-standing command of a “biographical scope” of Scriabin’s music in her wheelhouse; and nothing could please me more than discovering that she is still extending her command of the Scriabin catalog.
As might be suspected, her approach to Prokofiev is quite another matter. Opus 84 is the last of his three “war” sonatas. While there is sometimes a wistful quality in how Prokofiev unfolds his thematic material and a fearless tendency to modulate into remote keys, one never worries about the tonal center being absent, even if it is more migratory than one might anticipate. From a rhetorical point of view, Prokofiev may have been aiming at the weariness of dealing with a war with no end in sight and a longing for a peace that seems out of reach. Nevertheless, there are also unmistakable “militant” qualities, which tend to be most evident in the final movements of each of the three sonatas.
Wang knows better that to try to outdo Prokofiev when it comes to martial metaphors. She is perfectly willing to focus on her technique and simply make sure that she brings clarity to every note that Prokofiev committed to paper. That technique is necessary, particularly for those listening to any of those war sonatas for the first time; and Prokofiev’s legacy could not have been better served than by Wang’s interpretation at this Berlin concert. Indeed, that same attentiveness to clarity serves her Rachmaninoff selections equally well, paying more attention to how she can balance the thematic lines that unfold simultaneously in different registers than to whether or not she can add anything to the expressiveness that Rachmaninoff had already committed to paper.
Where pure technique is concerned, however, nothing can surpass what Ligeti took to be an étude. It is hard to imagine him not feeling prankish about the demands he places on a performer. It would be fair to say that Wang takes a play-it-as-it-lays approach to the three études she selected for her recital. Each one of them requires a massive commitment of both mental and physical cycles, and Wang was could not have been better equipped on both counts. Since I have been fortunate enough to listen to Wang playing more Scriabin on this release, my real wish is that she decides to learn more of those Ligeti études, perhaps to a point where she can give a convincing account of the entire set!