By Zachary Woolfe
Published: May 17, 2013
By the time the pianist Yuja Wang had played a fifth encore to cap her exhilarating concert on Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall, I confess that while perhaps 90 percent of my attention was on her precise yet exuberant playing, a crucial 10 was on her skintight flame-colored dress.
It seems that a high-minded, conscientious music critic should pay Ms. Wang’s signature attire no mind. Enough ink, certainly, has been spilled on the subject during her rise to prominence these past few years.
But her vivid sartorial choices are far from incidental to the formidable effect of her playing. Her alluring, surprising clothes don’t just echo the allure and surprise of her musicianship, though they certainly do that.
More crucial, the tiny dresses and spiky heels draw your focus to how petite Ms. Wang is, how stark the contrast between her body and the forcefulness she achieves at her instrument. That contrast creates drama. It turns a recital into a performance.
And a performance, in the fullest sense of the word, was what Thursday’s program demanded. Ms. Wang offered an immersion in the overripe afterglow of 19th-century Romanticism: sonatas by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, and “La Valse” by Ravel, all introduced by Lowell Liebermann’s “Gargoyles” (1989), a contemporary work that neatly evoked the fin-de-siècle decadence of the rest.
To say that Ms. Wang barnstormed through these dreamy, theatrical works is true but drastically understates her range of expression. Her fortissimos were fearsome, but so, in a quieter way, were the longing melodic lines of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2.
Ms. Wang began these melodies with a stiffness approaching self-consciousness before gradually relaxing into pure lyricism, giving a sense of the music’s tightening and loosening in grand cycles. Playing with daring deliberation, she came close to disconnecting the phrases of the slow second movement. It was a move that emphasized Rachmaninoff’s incipient modernity, as did her teasing out of jazzy figurations and Debussyian kaleidoscopic textures.
The liquidity of her phrasing in the second movement of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 eerily evoked the sound of woodwinds. In that composer’s Sonata No. 6 she juxtaposed colors granitic and gauzy to eerily brilliant effect before closing the written program with a rabid rendition of the one-piano version of “La Valse,” accentuating the sickliness of Ravel’s distorted waltzes.
By her apocalyptic finale, there was no question that the party of the 19th century was definitively over in the aftermath of World War I. But she offered a nostalgic glimpse back in her fourth encore, Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor.
Ms. Wang returns to Carnegie on Oct. 22 with a program of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and more Chopin. I’ll see you there.