SOUL MUSIC

Russian romanticism and timeless late 20th-century miniatures occupy Yuja Wang in new Deutsche Grammophon solo recital album

·         The Berlin Album – Yuja Wang’s impassioned survey of landmark works by Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Ligeti and Prokofiev

·         Yuja Wang stirs memories of legendary artists with interpretations of boundless imagination, jaw-dropping technical command and transcendent power

·         Companion EP captures beauty and eloquence of Yuja Wang’s Berlin encore pieces



Yuja Wang’s philosophy of music is both simple and profoundly complex. “I want to relate all life to music,” she recently told veteran British critic Fiona Maddocks. The Beijing-born pianist’s latest album for Deutsche Grammophon, set for international release on 23 November 2018, captures the white heat of solo works by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Scriabin and Ligeti, a trio of Russians together with one of the late 20th-century’s greatest composers. The Berlin Recital was recorded live this summer at the Berlin Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal during Yuja’s extensive solo tour of North America and Europe. The Yellow Label also recorded her sublime series of Berlin encore pieces to form a separate EP, which spans everything from the riffs and roulades of Nikolai Kapustin’s jazz-tinged Toccatina to Earl Wild’s sonorous transcription of the Pas de Quatre from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.



Russian music opened Yuja Wang’s heart to the western classics. As an infant, she watched her mother, a dancer, rehearse Swan Lake. The beauty of the experience resonated long after her first encounter with Tchaikovsky. She began picking out melodies on the piano at home, her parents’ wedding gift, and received her first piano lessons at the age of six. Russian art and culture had reached deep into China, delivered by strong connections between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic. Russian-trained musicians taught everywhere from Harbin in the northeast to Shanghai on China’s Pacific coast.

Yuja’s first piano teacher, with whom she studied from seven to the age of 14, studied with a teacher from the famously expressive Russian school of pianism. “My teacher talked a lot about sound,” she recalls. “She really loved Evgeny Kissin, so I heard all his Chopin recordings when I was nine. My teacher also liked Martha Argerich, while I liked Alfred Cortot; I found him extremely poetic and very inspiring. Vladimir Horowitz? I don’t care what other people think – for me, he’s just so gripping. And Rachmaninov – very sincere playing.”

After five years at the Beijing Conservatory and a life-changing spell at the Calgary Conservatory’s Academy for Gifted Youth, Yuja was invited to join the high-flyers at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her mentors there included Leon Fleisher, who had studied during childhood with Artur Schnabel, and Gary Graffman, a pupil of the Russian-American Isabelle Vengerova. Russian music was never far from Yuja’s fingers during her time at Curtis. She made her international breakthrough in 2007 as a last-minute replacement for Martha Argerich, performing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to critical acclaim, and included Scriabin’s “Sonata Fantasy” on her DG debut album two years later. Her Yellow Label discography has grown with recordings of piano concertos by Rachmaninov and Prokofiev and solo showpieces by Scriabin and Stravinsky.

“Those Russian pieces have a way of bringing out every emotion, the nostalgic feelings in us all,” says Yuja. “They make us feel really human. But at the same time, it’s as if they’re larger than life. They’re about something bigger than us, yet they’re also fun for an audience. And there’s a real difference between each composer, which is clear in the pieces in my new album. Prokofiev is so dark and so powerful and can be caustic and acid, edgy. Rachmaninov is just pure romance, or a little jazzy – but not very sentimental. And Scriabin, of course, is a completely different world.”

Yuja chose three of György Ligeti’s Études, multi-layered miniatures written between 1985 and 1994, to serve as stepping stones to link the intoxicating, near-mystical chromaticism of Scriabin’s Tenth Piano Sonata of 1913 and Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-Flat Major Op. 84, the last of his so-called “War Sonatas”, first performed by Emil Gilels in December 1944. The Berlin Recital opens with one of Rachmaninov’s best-known works, the Prelude in G minor Op.23 No.5, imbued with a majesty that evokes memories of Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, two giants of the Russian piano school. Yuja’s programme also includes a contrasting pair of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux, the turbulent study in C minor Op.39 No.1 and the soul-searching Op.33 No.3, and the composer’s haunting Prelude Op.32 No.10.

Yuja Wang’s affinity for Russian music reflects her temperament and the emotions that condition it. “Something emotional always happens in life,” she observes. “I guess I am reacting to music more intensely than anything else, like I need its nourishment.” The experience of performing, she adds, is always fully open to anxiety and pleasure, fear and joy, doubt and faith. “The element of nervousness, of struggling, of searching feels uncomfortable. This is probably what makes the magic in performance, even though it feels bad for me. Yet playing the piano is always so tactile, so physical, which is where so much emotion comes from. Every piece I play has to have my own voice to it, my own interpretation. There’s always a different approach – there’s not just one way to approach any music. That’s why it’s never boring to play the same piece over and over, because you see it from different angles.”