"I'm not sure about the Wang part," says Yuja Wang. "Half of China is called Wang. Often I think I'd prefer just to be called Yuja." She tilts her head and laughs. Yuja's laugh seems twice as big as she is. Her diminutive hands can also stretch double the distance that ought to be anatomically possible. There are many anomalies about this young musician. "Tradition?" she asks. "I think it's basically just a teacher who has a bunch of students, and they teach other students. I don't know. No, wait a moment. I think tradition is really a Jungian archetype. Everyone somehow unconsciously knows that there is something that must be done with a piece or in life. It's collective."
Yuja Wang looks fragile, but exudes strength. She combines politeness with confidence, and an ability to listen with impish humour. She has a habit of taking the conversation through unexpected twists. Google Yuja (or Yujia) Wang, and you'll find her on "You Tube" in white frills and flower hair-clips, looking as if she should be in kindergarten, playing Chopin and Liszt with dreamy, clean-cut perfection. That was just a decade ago. Where on earth did the Jungian archetypes come in?
Perhaps she would opine that they had been there all along, but Yuja Wang traces her interest in German philosophy back to her solitary arrival as a 14-year-old in Canada, and the commencement of her studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia the following year. "It's a very different culture of music education," she explains. "In China, I was very sure that if I did exactly what my teacher told me to do, I'd be good. But in Canada and the US, nobody told me what to do any more. It became like an investigative process, like detective work. So if I played Liszt, I would read Goethe's Faust and listen to Wagner operas. I'd go to museums. I'm trying to get the cultural background into my subconscious, so that maybe some of it will rub off."
Yuja Wang's ability to digress from Chinese history to German literature via American contemporary art would be startling in any 21-year-old, and is even more so in the light of her unconventional schooling. The daughter of a dancer and a percussionist, Yuja Wang was home-schooled until the age of seven, after which she attended school in the morning and the Beijing Conservatory in the afternoon until she left for Calgary. Since then, her non-musical education has followed her whims, and the extent of her general knowledge bears witness to the voracity of an unusually inquisitive mind.
"When I was at the Beijing Conservatory", Yuja says, "the focus lay before Brahms. I didn't play any chamber music, or listen to recordings, or hear orchestral music. We had an exam every semester, and the whole semester was spent making each piece as special as possible. I didn't confine myself to the set repertoire, and my teacher, who was Russian-taught, tried to train me differently. She was very thorough, very polished. But in China the training was still narrow. I never heard George Crumb or Arvo Pärt. I didn't know of any counter-culture." Times have changed since Yuja Wang left: seven years is a long time in today's China. "Now", she says, "the conservatory in Beijing has a new building, and young people have started playing Messiaen and Ligeti."
Competition wins had been second nature to Yuja Wang since her childhood, and she trails strings of prizes from China, Japan, Spain and Germany. So it was a logical next step to take on a manager at the age of 16, and launch her professional career. And for Yuja, it was natural to tell her manager that she wanted to record for the Yellow Label. "The first CD I ever heard was Pollini playing Chopin. DG was always the label that I aspired to record for."
Yuja Wang has a flair for virtuosic transcriptions, but in the end, the idea of a debut album of encore pieces was sidelined in favour of weightier repertoire. "Artistically, I wanted to make a statement," she says. It is the commonality between Liszt's 'Faust' Symphony, mostly composed in 1854, and his Piano Sonata, completed in 1853, that drew Yuja to Goethe who provides a conceptual link for this recording, though the degree to which the massive sonata can be programmatically linked to the Faust story is one of debate among musicologists. Yuja does see connections.
Already as a 14-year-old, she had tackled the piece. After a break of several years, she was ready to take a fresh look at the B minor Sonata, and decided it would be a suitable centrepiece for her debut recording, along with Chopin's Sonata in B flat minor. "The Chopin is not very Chopinesque," she says. Best known for the Funeral March in its third movement, the piece, written in 1837/39, is untypically turbulent and dark, and it confused contemporary critics. "The last movement is very forward-looking, almost like a prophecy, which you don't expect," says Yuja Wang. "Chopin wrote so many perfect compositions, but his Second Sonata is not perfect. And I really like its imperfection."
Scriabin used it as a model for his own Sonata in G sharp minor (published in 1897 after a five-year genesis), which is uncharacteristic of the composer in the opposite manner - far more impressionistic and Romantic than his later works, fittingly subtitled a "fantasy sonata". The Russian symbolist's music became increasingly wild as his short life progressed, but the only hint of that in Scriabin's Second Sonata is its demand that the player span the vast interval of a 12th - only possible for those blessed with truly enormous hands or pragmatists willing to arpeggiate.
"I wanted to show the connection between Chopin and Scriabin," Yuja Wang says. "I like Scriabin's earlier works. There's something improvisatory about this sonata. It's like a fantasy world. The Liszt is not fantasy. It's like heaven or hell. It's like real life. And for a contrast between Chopin and these big romantic works, I chose Ligeti." His Etudes, published between 1985 and 1994, are aural and tactile gems, disparate in their inspiration and exceptionally virtuosic in their execution, regarded as some of the best piano works of the past 50 years. The fourth etude, 'Fanfare', includes traces of the music of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, while the shimmering, colourful atmosphere of the tenth, 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice', clearly conjures Chopin. "I was interested in the hypnotic effect of the fourth etude," says Yuja Wang. "What Ligeti wrote is very mathematical, but when it comes off, it's just effect. It's like little sparkles in between the bigger works."
The question of where she sees herself in a decade makes Yuja Wang pause for thought. "I'm searching ... trying to find my own voice. I think that's necessary in a world like today's. I might compose one day . . . it could be fun to conduct. But my goal at the moment is just to see what comes my way, to take it and express it with my music."
(excerpts from the CD booklet)