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Concert review: 'Spectacular' doesn't begin to describe pianist Yuja Wang's Koerner Hall recital

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(John Terauds phone photo.)
(John Terauds phone photo.)

There are no words to succinctly describe pianist Yuja Wang’s solo recital at Koerner Hall on Sunday afternoon.

“Spectacular” suggests something like metaphorical flashing rhinestones and strobe lights. But the 26-year-old sensation’s playing, while expressive, had a sobre edge.

Her technique was super-humanly fine, but she always put it in the service of the music.

Perhaps “stunning” might describe the two-hand piano reduction of three movements of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka ballet suite, which closed the official portion of the concert.

Wang teased out every single rhythmic texture the composer laid out for the orchestra while flawlessly delivering all the notes at lightning speed — so quickly at times that her hands were a blur hovering over the pearly-white keys of Koerner Hall’s extra-fine Steinway concert grand.

That adjective would also nicely describe Wang’s take on Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 3, a technical test she aced — and iced with particularly effective applications of dramatic dynamic shifts.

But this is not the same “stunning” as Wang’s interpretation of three pieces by arch-Romantic Frédéric Chopin — the sweeping Piano Sonata No. 3, Ballade in A-flat Major (Op. 47) and the brooding Op. 48 Nocturne in C minor.

“Deeply affecting” works better here, but not in the sense of liberal use of rubato (speeding up and slowing down to mark the passage of phrases). Obvious expressive effects like these were remarkably restrained.

Instead, Wang seduced her enthralled capacity house with lighting-fast dynamic shifts, a technique so fluent and fluid as to defy mortal neurons, tendons and muscle, and pianissimo passages so delicate as as to cause everyone to instinctively lean forward in their seat in order to better hear what was going on.

“Breathtaking” might work for Wang’s interpretive high-wire act, in which she would linger during introspective passages to the point where the narrative thread threatened to break — but then would always pull back from the brink to keep the music flowing.

The only portions of the afternoon’s recital where Wang was only fantastic, as opposed to some apt superlative that I can’t put my own fingers on, was in the two jazz-inflected selections: Nikolai Kapustin’s Variations for Piano, and her encore piece, which sounded a lot like Art Tatum’s classic solo-piano take on Tea for Two.

As with everything else she played, Wang’s fingers flew along with uncanny fluency and precision, and the dynamics were impeccably modulated, but the pieces lacked the loose-limbed mien of true jazz.

No matter. Wang’s audience, myself included, was left rapt, slack-jawed and awestruck by a virtuoso display that will live on in memory for a long time — or Wang’s next Toronto concert visit — because, all other descriptors aside, this pianist told exciting stories in music that engaged everyone within earshot.

That is great artistry.

 John Terauds

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