Yuja Wang: Transformation (CD review)

Works for solo piano by Stravinsky, Scarlatti, Brahms, and Ravel. Yuja Wang, piano.  DG 000289 477 8795 2.

Note: The following is an early review. DG will release the album April 13.

I never heard Ms. Wang's first album of solo piano pieces, an album that earned her a Grammy nomination, but if it is anything like this one, it must be quite good, and together the two discs surely mark a commendable new talent.

In an accompanying note, music critic Michael Church tells us that "Yuja Wang's title for her recording reflects the Buddhist idea that life consists of constant change." Thus, Ms. Wang presents the works of four composers whose music reflects such change. In the first place, several of the composers intended their work for a large ensemble and transformed it (transcribed it) for solo piano. More important, Ms. Wang finds in each piece of music a rationale for transformation or change: "In Brahms transforming his theme 27 times; Ravel transforming the waltz by testing it to oblivion; and Stravinsky's puppet Petrushka being temporarily transformed into a human being before finally reverting to puppethood."

I have to admit I find Ms. Wang's justifications for the disc's program a tad vague, but there is no questioning the repertoire selections themselves, which override any personal qualms about their inclusion. My only serious, if minor, concern after listening to the disc is that I found myself more or less admiring Ms. Wang's technical mastery of the piano without quite actually falling in love with the music. She is without doubt an accomplished and virtuosic player, but whether every listener will appreciate the feeling, the heart, behind her playing is another matter. While everyone will react differently to Ms. Wang's interpretations, I don't think anyone would question the fact that her pianistic skills are dazzling.

The program starts out with a bang with Igor Stravinsky's own piano transcription of three movements from his ballet Petrouchka: "Danse russe," "Chez Petrouchka," and "The Shrovetide Fair." They are mostly lightning and thunder, with some finely tuned nuances thrown in. I'm sure Ms. Wang meant them to get the show underway in the manner of overtures, with plenty of expressive animation and bravura.

Next comes the relative calm after the storm, Domenico Scarlatti's Sonata in E major, Andante comodo, a sweetly relaxed interlude before the big guns come out again, this time in the form of Johannes Brahms's twenty-seven Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Here, we're back to virtuosity and sparkling finger work. Ms. Wang maintains a proper rhythmic pulse throughout and an appropriate continuity among the assorted Variations, so the work is more of a piece than usual. The waltz is particularly charming, and the affair ends with a rousing, whirlwind flourish.

After a second Scarlatti Sonata respite, the album closes with Maurice Ravel's La Valse, transcribed for piano by the composer. La Valse is delicately spooky and sinister, always reminding me of a scene from the movie version of Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," where the devil's disciples come to take their victims off to hell during a formal dance, whirling around until they're dead. I found Ms. Wang at her most affective in this piece, the subtilties of her shading quite bewitching.

I have not always considered DG's orchestral sound to my liking, but I have always enjoyed the way they've caught the sound of a piano. In fact, some of my favorite piano recordings are on DG, and this new one from Yuja Wang is no exception. The audio engineers appear to have miked the piano rather closely, yet it produces a pleasingly robust bloom, with a solid bass, an exceptionally clear and colorful midrange, and a slightly forward top end. For the kind of music making Ms. Wang engages in here--largely vigorous and stimulating--the sonics seem ideal, and if some listeners should find things a touch hard or bright, it's nonetheless probably what the actual instrument sounds like live.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa