Variations on the Piano

Andras Schiff. Photo: Nadia F. Romanini.

Andras Schiff. Photo: Nadia F. Romanini.

I heard two solo piano recitals this week–two very different musicians, in quite different halls, but both playing Steinway concert grands. In Chapel Hill, Carolina Performing Arts presented András Schiff, in one of the final concerts in the last chapter of his Bach Project, playing The Goldberg Variations to a full house in Memorial Hall on Oct. 23. Schiff, who was born in Budapest in 1953, has been lauded for decades for his exquisite musicianship, his deep understanding of Bach and Beethoven in particular, and his many accomplishments in performance and recording. He seems to be past all striving for fame and glory to swell the ego; he smiled like a meditating gnome as he unrolled the glorious many-colored carpet of variations on the lovely opening aria. I’ve been listening to Simone Dinnerstein’s recording lately, enjoying its unhurried pace, dreamy sentiment and lush sensuality, but in Schiff’s concert the tempi were more varied (though never rushed), the colors were brighter, the patterns sharper, and the feelings more fully considered.

Yuja Wang, who appeared to inaugurate the Duke Performances piano recital series to a sell-out crowd in Duke’s newly renovated Baldwin Auditorium, was born in Beijing in 1987, and is currently taking the world by storm. The 26-year-old pyrotechnic wizard, quite unlike Schiff, maximizes her personal impact on stage–no chance of her charms going unnoticed. On the 24th for her Baldwin recital she wore a tiny red dress that would easily have fit in the pocket of Schiff’s loose matte black smock, and extremely high-heeled shoes. Her playing, powerful and precise, was even showier than her fashion choices. She played a mixed program, that whatever else one may have thought, demonstrated that Baldwin is a very wonderful room for solo piano.

Pianist Yuja Wang. Credit: Rolex, Fadil Berisha.

Pianist Yuja Wang. Credit: Rolex, Fadil Berisha.

She opened with Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata in A Minor, Op. 28, and gave a dazzling interpretation of that tempestuous single-movement work which premiered in Petrograd in the spring of 1918. Wang gave it all the disturbance, glamour and hope of its time and place, if not any of the darkness and blood. She also played the living daylights out of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka: Three Movements for Piano, which he developed in 1921 from his orchestral ballet music for Petrouchka. It is loud and fast and hard, full of challenging passages, and well-suited for Wang’s prodigious technique and flashy panache.

Her approach to Chopin seems to be much the same as it is to Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and for this listener, that means she does not make the music come to life, no matter how brilliantly she plays the notes. I admit to being extremely choicey about my Chopin, because I love it so, especially the piano music. I was raised on Rubenstein, and latter fell for Ashkenazy, two players who find the nuances, the melancholy, the joy, the grace–the heart–nestled in the grandeur. It is possible that Wang, given fifteen or twenty years and some heartbreak and bad health, if she can fit them into her touring schedule, might become a superlative interpreter of Chopin. I was hard-pressed to stay in my seat for the hard shiny versions of Sonata, Nocturne and Ballade she played on the 24th. At intermission, the person in front of me noted that she’d wanted to throw something at the pianist during the Sonata.

Wang played three encores, during which I found solace in remembering Schiff’s meltingly beautiful encore from the previous night. After the extraordinary rendition of the 75-minute Goldberg Variations (ah, the benefits of age, experience and uncloaked feeling on top of technique), Schiff returned to the stage and played the entire Beethoven Sonata no. 30, Op. 109.  No one who was there will forget it.

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