Pianist Yuja Wang has just visited Australia for concerts in Sydney and Melbourne; she played a solo recital in Sydney and then Brahms’s second piano concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and although Melbourne scored no solo show she performed Prokofiev’s second concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra three nights running (July 23, 24 & 25). We Melburnians were also served Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave and the fourth symphony of Brahms.
I was in the audience for the concert on July 25, and I had secured myself an aisle seat on the left of the stalls – with a clear view to the instrument and the performer. Prokofiev’s second has always been my favourite among his concerti, and it is in fact one of my favourite piano concerti among all those that I’ve heard. I have a copy of the two-piano score so I’m aware of how appallingly difficult it is to play. I know that if I were so much as to dream of learning it I’d probably need a year just to think it over before even touching the keyboard.
I have been following Yuja Wang for only a little while; it was when NPR filmed her playing the Prokofiev Toccata in the Steinway factory in New York early last year that she came to my attention, and I was stunned by the level at which she was working. She is all over this outrageous score. Her sense of line and dynamic is faultless, and her accuracy is literally incredible. As the camera draws away, she can be heard to say ‘This piece is killing me,’ but in actual fact I’d say it’s the other way around. And in a good way – it submits to her.
I have heard some pretty incredible piano players over the years; when I was very young I remember my grandmother taking me to hear Jorge Bolet in the Melbourne Concert Hall (as it was then known), and his performance of Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli was, even for me then, awesome to see and to hear. I was growing up in the 1980s when Ivo Pogorelich was doing those recordings of Gaspard de la nuit and Beethoven’s op. 111, and Martha Argerich released the unbelievable disc of Schumann’s opp. 15 and 16, and Maurizio Pollini recorded Schumann’s op. 13. These were my daily bread. In more recent years (as examples) I have heard both Donna Coleman and Michael Kieran Harvey dispatch Charles Ives’s Concord sonata – Michael’s rendition being delivered in the Old Melbourne Gaol. I am a subscriber to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall so there there are regular performances of piano concerti by pianists from all over the place, and they’re always impressive. What privilege to hear (and to watch) Pollini play Mozart, or Yefim Bronfman doing Brahms – I mean this is serious piano class that goes back decades. Most recently in the DCH it has been Yuja Wang, performing the Prokofiev.
And hearing her has been something else, something genuinely arresting, even terrifying, something that marks a break. Because she’s fifteen years younger than I am, and this year she’ll be performing, as well as the Brahms and the Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky’s second, Bartok’s second, Beethoven’s fourth, and Mozart’s Jeunehomme concerti – and that’s beside the solo recitals and the chamber music concerts that are lined up. Maybe I’ve never paid enough attention to the working life of the concert pianist before, but this does seem like an astonishingly vast repertoire to have in circulation at once. Is it? Prokofiev and Bartok are two of the curlier composers for piano – but then this is the person who once recorded Rachmaninov’s third alongside the Prokofiev in a single concert. (And that‘s terrifying.)
Before Yuja Wang arrived in Australia I sent a message to her press corps seeking the chance to speak with her. What I had in mind was an interview on which to base a piece for this website, free of editorial interference or commercial objective, just an opportunity to discuss what she does and how she does it. Because I’m a piano player (well, I used to think of myself that way until the end of last week) whose practice is so different from hers, I thought it might be interesting to talk about the demands and pressures of performing work like this and the situation of one’s self in it. The press corps was very polite about it, but said, ‘no.’ I sort of thought they probably would. I was not overly downcast when they did.
Going along last Saturday night was the final thing in a hell day full of children’s commitments and ferrying people hither and thither to dance, play, act, party – weekends tend to be busy but this was verging on the impossible side of ridiculous. I never go to pre-concert talks but I found that the one here was to be given by Liz Kertesz, whom I like and admire, so I went along and listened. And what I heard was very good – although won’t anyone ever say that Brahms has a joke about Wagner in the last movement of his fourth symphony? Am I the only one who hears Tannhäuser summoned between m. 113 and m. 128? Maybe I am. Or maybe it isn’t Tannhäuser. Anyway, moving on.
The opening of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto is one of those Proko moments that seriously undo me. (Another is the end of the first movement of the third symphony. Who saw that coming? Where did that quiet come from? How did he do it?) The right hand melody is so perfect, and the left hand’s undulating accompaniment so sympathetic (not to mention well-made – how about the way he makes those diatonic extensions fall under the hand?) that, as per a Bach fugue subject such as BWV 542 or BWV 865, you know you’re in for some very tasty business. And his capacity to morph from one harmonic region to another is so identifiably his own, so crafty and yet (it seems) so very logical, that when G minor reappears you feel it, you know you’re home. Schubert does this sort of thing so majestically in the slow movement of the String Quintet – taking his time and hurrying nothing, but observing implications of dimension that leave one feeling entirely situated and utterly satisfied when the train rolls into the station.
I watched Ms Wang as the orchestra slipped out the quiet opening gestures, and her hands were on her legs; her fingers flexed and relaxed, and then she raised her arms to play. And what followed was so stupendously impressive that when it finished I was on my feet. Not everyone was, but there were quite a few of us who felt so inclined. And then she played a blistering encore: the Bizet/Horowitz Carmen thing that again, if ever I thought I might learn it, would compel me to cancel all other engagements for at least a year or two.
Now I studied classical piano for the first ten years that I took lessons; I did the grades and progressed and all the rest of it. I had weekly lessons that went from being half an hour long to being eventually an hour long, and I worked through a fair amount of music. I played some Liszt and some Chopin (and they’re the big boys, right?) and I even went in for some Messiaen, which (to her credit, although it was not her cup of thrills) my teacher took very seriously and assisted me with. While I was doing the Masters (1996, I think – second year) I decided to learn the ‘Precipitato’ movement from Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata for an analysis paper, and I performed that – quite well, I thought – to the class. I knew – of course I knew – by this time that I was an improviser and that the deep delights of the vast classical repertoire were going to be enjoyed by others apart from myself, but as a challenge I took up the Prokofiev and endeavoured to play it as well as I could.
Sometimes I resent that as an improviser I am expected to be conversant with a broad range of music that I shall never perform. Sometimes I console myself with the thought that it’s so terribly unfair to have to know about the 48 Preludes and Fugues, or the 32 sonatas, or the Carnaval op. 9, or the Catalogue d’Oiseaux, to say nothing of the Haydn quartets (by Mozart) or the symphonies of Sibelius or the Vox Balaenae, as well as the Savoy recordings of Charlie Parker, Bill Evans’s Riverside sessions, or the large-scale works of Duke Ellington. Poor me! My resentment is a weightless trophy, of course; no-one in a right mind would contend that the European/American classical works aren’t actually magnificent and their acquaintance worth any time it took. And in fact what luck to be able to mix in both worlds. (I’ve heard it said that Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli played some jazz locally (although I don’t know if this is true). The jazzers might say, what was his jazz worth? And perhaps they are onto something. But, thereby: what is my Prokofiev worth?)
Yuja Wang’s Instagram recently featured a picture of her dining with Roger Federer. Funnily enough, I watch the Australian Open when it’s on each year, although I’d not say I have a great interest in tennis and the other Grand Slams tend go by without my even registering that they’re on. What I dependably feel each summer though, as I watch these polished sportspeople doing their thing, is how marvellous it must be to have perfected technique so one can rely on one’s body to do what is required as it is required, how refined is the sensibility that plays through five sets with changing fortunes and maintains focus, and how unthinkable to have got to the point where you can walk out in front of a stadium’s worth of spectators and an international television audience and face down a serve that comes in at 200 km/h. I think always (and you saw this coming) of musical practice, and try to imagine what it would mean to have got to such a point as piano player or as composer.
Ladies and gentlemen, Yuja Wang is there. Not that you’d need me to tell you, had you heard her; her recording of the Rachmaninov Paganini rhapsody with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and maestro Claudio Abbado is so extraordinarily wonderful as to leave one agape at the breadth of conception, the depth of understanding – such as teaches one, rather than confirming what one already thought – and (of course) the elegance of execution. If you’ve heard it, you know what I’m saying already. The same goes for the Rach 3 and Proko 2 disc with Gustavo Dudamel waving the stick in front of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. It’s impossibly good. And the playing in Melbourne was so breathtakingly assured, so apparently effortless, so intended, one walked out of the hall at half time needing wine more than ever.
The emotional weight of the Prokofiev concerto, and the stunning impact of its delivery, made a dent in the sides of one’s situation in the world – dramatic as it may sound, it was as serious as that. Prokofiev works through vast expanses in his best compositions; the journey from sensation to despair, or from confusion to determination, is encoded variously in any number of his pieces. The second piano concerto is, as Gustav Mahler said of the ideal symphony, a world; it encompasses a panorama of experience and transmits the same. I sat in the hall and listened, transfixed, to the realisation of this extraordinary piece and although I’d known already it was going to be pretty good – having watched the Digital Concert Hall transmission at least half a dozen times already – I was stunned afresh at the comprehensiveness of the interpretation. Things seemed to come a little unstuck midway through the Scherzo (not at the piano, either) – and fair enough, you know, it’s forbidding – but other than that the performance was damn’ near perfect.
Inevitably as a performer one relates what one has heard to oneself, as this is one’s ultimate (if tragic) benchmark, and in this case the lesson to be learned seemed an especially daunting one. That said, one can have either of two reactions to performances such as this one: in the first case you feel that there is no point to continuing on the journey, because the story has been told, or in the second you feel a profound and irresistible inspiration from what has been heard; you say, this is possible, let us make. I am glad to say I had the latter response, and although I left Hamer Hall feeling somewhat crushed I was determined to do whatever I could to make my next statement as good as it could possibly be. At the moment I don’t know what shape it will take, but I am fixed on an ideal of clear and affecting communication with my fellow human beings. This is the power of music; Prokofiev knew that and so does Yuja Wang. I take their lead. And on we go.