Yuja Wang’s Fantasia
Yuja Wang cannot remember how many encores she played at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. “I thought I played four,” she says, “but people keep saying that I did more. It’s weird.” In Carnegie Hall, it was four; at the Salle Pleyel, she was having difficulty leaving the piano. “It’s like with people – I meet them once, then I go to another city. I’ll never touch this piano again, but it was so beautiful, and I loved the atmosphere.” An encore, says Yuja, is something that is both ephemeral and truthful. “It’s a temporary mood, reciprocated by the audience. They’re pieces I’ve played for so long that they’ve become a part of me. It’s a kind of record of how my heart is feeling at the moment.”
After her weighty Transformation disc (with works by Stravinsky, Scarlatti, Brahms and Ravel) and acclaimed Rachmaninov recordings, Yuja and Deutsche Grammophon agreed on this compilation of miniatures, a project of a radically different nature. “I love all the pieces here,” Yuja explains. “With these miniatures, I hope I can capture a mood or a scent – a hint of atmosphere. That’s all you can do with small pieces, create a vignette of a memory, or a hope. It’s like a haiku.”
For Yuja, a point of satisfaction is that the album’s title, Fantasia, recalls both Paul Dukas’s L’Apprenti sorcier and the Disney film. The latter, along with a performance of Swan Lake, was her first encounter with classical music as a child, and she always enjoys the frisson of recognition that runs through an audience when the familiar melody emerges.
Characteristically, Yuja segues from Mickey Mouse to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe without missing a beat. Dukas’s work was inspired by Goethe’s Zauberlehrling, while Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, which she plays in Liszt’s transcription, draws on Goethe’s Faust, which she has read in its entirety. “I love that drama,” she says. “There’s so much of humanity in it. Schubert wrote his song two hundred years ago, but I feel that it speaks to me and to other people today because we all share the same human emotions and something bigger than ourselves. This is a beautiful piece, deep and full of possibilities. It’s dramatic stuff, but not real – a fantasy, only in my imagination!”
She draws similar conclusions about some of the states of mind evoked by Scriabin, a composer to whom she feels particularly drawn. With the addition of Chopin’s C sharp minor Waltz, she again draws the parallel between two composers whom she had consciously linked on her Deutsche Grammophon debut disc Sonatas & Etudes. “Scriabin’s earlier pieces are quite Chopinesque. Later he becomes more neurotic, and by the time he gets to his middle period, Op. 32, you can hear him heading towards insanity. There’s a touch of craziness, yet it’s still smoky and dreamy. It’s a different sphere of existence. Like Messiaen, he was synaesthetic and experienced sound as colour. These pieces speak to me – there’s so much fantasy. I feel that I have incredible freedom in them.”
A further common theme in Yuja’s selection is the process of transcription, from Giovanni Sgambati’s take on Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice to her own version of L’Apprenti sorcier, the latter drawing on, among others, Victor Staub’s transcription of the same piece. Why not just play the Staub? “Staub’s version is pretty much impossible for any pianist whose hands don’t span two octaves each,” Yuja laughs. “My version fits my hands.”
The Rachmaninov works which Yuja has selected constitute a tribute to the pianist as well as the composer. “Rachmaninov’s playing is angelic and noble, and very organic. He has such clarity, both in terms of sound and structure; everything just makes sense. It’s like a painting by Raphael. Horowitz is more like Dalí.” Yuja reveres pianists as diverse as Samuil Feinberg and Art Tatum – the former for his subtlety, the latter for his improvisatory freedom. But Vladimir Horowitz, who features on this disc as transcriber of Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre and Bizet’s Carmen, occupies a unique place in her personal pantheon. “I was almost tempted to call the disc ‘My Heroes’,” she confesses. “Horowitz is the ultimate pianist. He has explosions and amazing brilliance, but he also tells a good story. The music is magnetic. It grabs you. When you listen to him play, it’s as if you’re the only one there, and he’s talking just to you. You feel you have his full attention, which is why you listen to him so attentively. It’s an intimate situation, which is my idea of what an encore should be. People assume that an encore is something showy, but, for me, it’s a little moment of tenderness from the heart.”