Wang project 4864478

Yuja Wang (piano)
The American Project
Michael Tilson Thomas (b.1944)
You come here often? (2016)
Teddy Abrams (b.1987)
Piano Concerto (2022)
Louisville Orchestra/Teddy Abrams
rec. 2022, The Kentucky Center, Louisville, USA
Deutsche Grammophon 486 4478 [42]

It is a reviewing cliché to claim that a work could have been written for a particular performer and one I have been guilty of using perhaps once too often. In the case of the two works on this new recording from Chinese pianist superstar Yuja Wang, they were written for her. The other sense of the cliché – a work that seems peculiarly suited to the performer – most certainly applies to the Piano Concerto by US composer, Teddy Abrams. It allows Wang to display all of her considerable talents whilst setting her weaknesses aside.

The Concerto in question was originally conceived of as a way of filling out a programme featuring Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue which, at about 16 minutes, is really too short for a solo pianist to properly show off their wares. Out of this idea came an extended 45 minute work, but one that still teems with Gershwin-like energy. Imagine Rhapsody in Blue mated with Rachmaninov 2 and you will get a reasonable idea of what the resultant work sounds like.

Wang’s pianism has always been about vitality and both she and Abrams’ imagination never flag for an instant. Even the very rare quiet moments are highly rhythmical. Abrams clearly understands the essence of the art of his old college friend, Wang. Technically, it is certainly spectacular with Wang gobbling up the notes with fierce bravura. The Louisville Orchestra – effectively an augmented Big Band – match her, exuberance for exuberance.

I am by no means an especial admirer of Yuja Wang whose recordings to date have tended, sensibly, to stick to repertoire that allows her steel fingers to draw gasps of astonishment rather than mine poetic or spiritual depths. In the past, I have found that this insistence on technical brilliance has left me thinking the works she plays a little short-changed. Not so here as with Abrams’ concerto what you see is what you get. It is big and brash, as manic as a Tom and Jerry cartoon and irresistibly American. What it isn’t, is subtle and it is debatable whether, at 45 minutes, it is too much of a good thing as it never eases off for a second.

Comparing this concerto with the Gershwin Rhapsody, what differentiates them is the absence in the new work of the older one’s procession of killer tunes. More than that, exciting though the Abrams undoubtedly is, it is just a little lacking in the soul that exudes from the Gershwin. The same point could be made about Wang’s playing. It isn’t that it is unmusical – far from it – but it is lacking in subtlety and variety. Everything is fast and brilliant and loud. In a piece like Abrams’ Concerto that’s exactly what’s needed and I was bowled over by the sheer ferocity of the playing. Other pianists such as Argerich and Uchida, to name but two, can match Wang for that ferocity but bring much, much else besides. I hope Wang’s artistry deepens as her career develops. In the meantime this concerto is a near ideal vehicle for where she has got to.

The whole charabanc gets under way with a short solo work, also written for Wang, this time by the conductor, Michael Tilson-Thomas. A pleasant enough piece of pseudo minimalism, its most distinctive feature is a wolf whistle toward the end. I presume this is a kind of ironic comment on Wang’s celebrated fondness for high hemlines when performing as is copiously illustrated in the CD booklet. Mercifully, the point of this recording is music and not fashion.

If it seems likely the Tilson-Thomas piece is destined for oblivion, I predict a rosy future for the Abrams Concerto, which seems to have all the necessary ingredients to become a modern classic – not least on account of Wang’s combustible playing of it. If you normally draw back from the thought of a contemporary composition but enjoy Big Band music and Gershwin, do give this a try. I suspect its contagious energy will have your feet tapping after a few bars and your mouth hanging open at Wang’s relentless, dynamic pianism.

David McDade

Previous review: Nick Barnard (March 2023)

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