Performance Thursday, October 20, 2011 | 8 PM

Yuja Wang

Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Coast to coast, the young Chinese pianist Yuja Wang has been astounding almost everyone who hears her. She’s a speed demon who leaves audiences breathless and emotionally spent, sparking comparisons to Horowitz by critics from both The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post. See her New York recital debut—only at Carnegie Hall.
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The Program

Prelude in B Major, Op. 11, No. 11; Prelude in B Minor, Op. 13, No. 6; Prelude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 11, No. 12; Etude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 8, No. 9; Poème in F-sharp Major, Op. 32, No. 1

A Forward-Looking Romantic

A self-styled mystic and a pioneer in musical metaphysics and technology, Alexander Scriabin was also a Romantic pianist in the grandest manner. No one has quite pinned him down, and reaction has been violently mixed. Ridiculed by Aldous Huxley as “the voluptuous dentist” and praised by Aaron Copland as the epitome of “‘pure’ inspiration,” he has consistently polarized musical opinion—except among pianists.

A Pianist’s Composer

Vladimir Horowitz—who played for Scriabin as a child and gave a mesmerizing performance of his “Black Mass” Sonata in his historic return to Carnegie Hall in 1965—championed Scriabin as a standard bearer of the late Romantic piano tradition. Sviatoslav Richter recorded the “demonic” late works when they were out of style.

Arthur Rubinstein attributed the disregard for Scriabin to his being a “Romantic lyricist ... The public wants coldness, not warmth. Look at this vogue for pre-Bach! Look at those moderns who are popular.” Yet “moderns” like Pierre-Laurent Aimard play Scriabin, as well.

The odd distribution of Scriabin’s detractors and admirers reflects the complexity of his place in musical history. Too tonal and Romantic for the avant-garde in the early 20th century, he was too dissonant and eccentric in his late works for conservatives. In the 21st century, with musical tastes geared toward the eclectic, this is no longer a problem. Performances of Scriabin’s piano music—early and late—are frequent, and even the more exotic tone poems and symphonies are programmed by maestros ranging from Muti to Maazel.

About the Music

The pieces on this program come from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, showcasing some of the best early Scriabin (though not necessarily the most familiar pieces), along with a foretaste of his mature style. The two Op. 11 selections feature a Chopin-esque yearning with interjections of voluptuous Russian harmonies. The percussive, strutting left hand in the Op. 13 prelude anticipates Prokofiev, but the stormy, Romantic rhetoric is Scriabin’s own. Similarly turbulent is the octave-studded Etude in G-sharp Minor from Op. 8—a virtuosic workout, though the middle section has a gentle lyricism that is characteristic of early Scriabin.

The concluding Poème in F-sharp Major comes from 1903, a testy and productive time for the composer, who was both eager to plunge into a new century and hesitant to leave behind a glorious heritage. It opens with seductively ambiguous harmonies—a preview of Scriabin’s “mystic chord”—but the two main ideas have a Romantic charm that melts at the end into an F-major cadence.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82

An Overwhelming Pulse

“Never had I heard anything like it,” pianist Sviatoslav Richter said after listening to Prokofiev play his Sixth Sonata at a Moscow salon gathering in 1940: “With a barbaric audacity, the composer breaks with the ideals of Romanticism and gives expression to the overwhelming pulse of the 20th century.”

Prokofiev helped create that pulse more than 20 years earlier in “barbaric” works such as the Scythian Suite. What is striking about the Sixth Sonata is how it combines brutal modernity (it wasn’t called a “war sonata” for nothing) with less aggressive Prokofiev qualities. Like the ballet Romeo and Juliet from the same time, it actually opens a period of consolidation and retrospection in the composer’s career. Prokofiev unleashes plenty of savagery in the first movement, but then gives us a march full of strutting charm, a waltz infused with his dry lyricism, and a finale sparked by dazzling playfulness.

Sonata Form to the Rescue

Prokofiev holds this big, sprawling work together with an overarching neoclassicism that looks back to his “Classical” Symphony. He adheres to the classical sonata form (or at least a Russian version of it), using Tchaikovsky’s structure of a waltz and march in the middle, and bringing back his most striking theme cyclically—a practice going back to Beethoven.

Because the piece opens and closes so explosively, the immediate impression is just what Richter says—one of harshness and audacity. The theme Prokofiev chooses to bring back is the opening one, accurately described by Heinrich Neuhaus as “hard as granite.” It concludes the sonata in a spasm of violence that is apocalyptic, even for Prokofiev.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Sonata in B Minor

A Surprising Consensus

Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata is widely regarded as his masterpiece. Even non-Lisztians succumb to its grandeur, while Lisztians hold it up as one of the towering piano works of the 19th century. This epic sonata combines the demonic virtuosity we expect in a Liszt piano piece with a formal mastery and satisfying completeness that often eluded this fragmentary innovator.

A Polarizing Genius

Liszt was the avatar of new music during the Romantic era, so the usual battle lines were quickly drawn when his sonata appeared in performance. Berlioz, Wagner, and their disciples championed it; Eduard Hanslick and the conservative wing denounced it, with Brahms making a point of falling asleep when Liszt played it for him. No one knows what Schumann would have thought, though the work was dedicated to him, as he was incarcerated in an asylum by the time the sonata appeared.

Liszt as Innovator

Writers often exaggerate Liszt’s structural innovations. Daring as Liszt’s sonata is, Berlioz had already pioneered its basic technique of thematic transformation, and Liszt was well aware of—and had even transcribed for piano and orchestra—Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy, which also deftly compresses sonata elements into a single movement.

What Liszt did revolutionize was harmony, as is dramatically demonstrated in this sonata’s mysteriously unresolved chords. From the first exotic, descending “gypsy” scale to the final ascent into infinity, Liszt brings us into a new world of sound where things hover in the air and don’t conventionally resolve. It’s hard to imagine Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde without Liszt’s haunting suspensions, or the Prokofiev sonata on this program without his driving ostinatos.

Heaven and Hell Together

Within a single, mesmerizing 30-minute movement, Liszt manipulates five interrelated themes so that they organically connect, collide, develop, and transform—always in novel and surprising ways. An idea may be angelic one minute and demonic the next, as the piece moves through a kaleidoscope of colors, moods, and virtuosic high-wire acts toward a final Zen-like repose. The languid andante melody later tumbles into ecstatic arpeggios; the sublime D-major grandioso theme reappears in terrifying dissonance, taking us to the heights, then plunging us into hell.

Indeed, Yuja Wang believes that the proximity of heaven and hell is what the sonata is about—“like real life.” She takes the work’s Faustian associations very seriously. Liszt followed Berlioz in his obsession with Goethe’s Faust, which he invoked explicitly in the “Dante” Sonata and the “Faust” Symphony, and indirectly here with the jagged opening theme that is often seen as a representation of Mephistopheles.

Liszt and Literature

This is not just poetic window-dressing. As Jacques Barzun points out, the Romantic composers were profoundly inspired by literature. To them, “the works of Goethe and Byron, Scott and Balzac, as well as the freshly rediscovered Dante and Shakespeare, were not just literature; they were revelations; they were secular scriptures.” One does not need to read Goethe’s Faust to appreciate Liszt’s sonata, but Yuja Wang believes that the more one reads, the more deeply one plays.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation