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Yuja Wang slays Beethoven's monster piano piece — and makes it look easy

The Granada was packed with cheering fans Monday night. Yuja the Kid had come to take on Murray the Pro. Who would hammer the “Hammerklavier” the hardest?

Although the Pro has a 40-year career advantage, he has only lately begun tackling Beethoven’s ultimate monster piano sonata, to which he had brought his abundance of experience to his recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall six days earlier. He had lunged at the keyboard with an explosive ferocity unknown in this reflective 69-year-old player. He went straight for the solar plexus of every ivory key on the keyboard, unleashing a mystically powerful tone. He was never brutal, but nothing escaped his Beethovenian grip.

Now, it was the Kid’s turn. Hers is a 40-year age advantage. She’s known for her athletic speed, agility and accuracy. As if to level the playing field technically, she came out onto the stage of the Granada Theatre  so tightly squeezed into a red-orange gown and wearing platform heels so high that she could barely walk. The Kid eats the world’s greatest keyboard challenges for breakfast with one hand tied behind her back.

Believe it or not, Murray played faster and louder. He pummeled harder. Yuja floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, her hands hitting what our eyes couldn’t see. He emerged from his ordeal exhausted, hardly able to walk offstage. In the manner of the greatest virtuosos of yore, she made this great effort seem almost effortless and was ready for three amazing encores.

It might seem as though there could be no two pianists more different than the flashy, exciting Yuja Wang and the introspectively illuminating Murray Perahia. Their approaches to the “Hammerklavier” would have to be, on the surface, Venus and Mars, or whatever.

Perahia’s understanding, feeling and urgency produce a “Hammerklavier” for the ages. Wang, with a flick of her dazzling fingers on the keys, sends an electric current through “Hammerklavier” that makes it modern music, Beethoven for the 21st century.

But this is no competition. These opposites are, profoundly, two necessary sides of the same coin.

For Wang, her recital — part of the UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lecture series that has been presciently presenting her since she was a nobody who could be hired for $2,500 — marks a significant junction in her career. Having become a sensation for her uncanny flare in bravura Russian and French music (and lately, Gershwin and even jazz), she is now boldly announcing that chops and glamour are not all that make her the pianist she is and the one she can become.

Her “Hammerklavier” is unlike any other I’ve encountered. She does not approach it as a grand statement. For Beethoven, this sonata is the Apollonian epitome of classical forms, and one traditional interpretive priority has always been to untangle its counterpoint, its web of motives, its intricate thematic constructs, its formal complexities. The other equally Apollonian approach has been to find in “Hammerklavier” Beethoven’s most fraught expressions of life and death.

Wang’s playing is extremely accurate, faithful to the tiniest detail in Beethoven’s score, but that score is not her GPS. Rather than being goal-oriented, she is in it for the adventure, for seeing how she can make every gesture in Beethoven her gesture. There is the danger of getting lost, but turning off the GPS also means seeing what is out the window, not on the map.

Wang’s saving grace is her Dionysian grace. Her sense of rhythm is so strong and sure that it gives her permission to explore without losing her bearing. She handles the sonata's opening left-hand lunge, such a fraught exercise for Perahia and other mortals, as a balletic liftoff. But if dance and flight are part of her Beethovenian arsenal, so too are dub beat and flamboyant keyboard flourishes.

The short Scherzo between that thunderous first movement and the long and dispiriting slow movement normally serves as a contrasting brief attempt at levity. Wang made it central, so exhilarating it couldn’t be forgotten. That allowed her slow movement to remain unusually and disarmingly placid, with the ground continually shifting under Beethoven’s feet. She has become enamored of stopping time with ethereal pianissimos, and here she used them to create surreal and surprisingly moving clock-bending effects. Was she slow or fast here?  Wang's relativistic playing made the distinction practically meaningless. 

Rather than convey the sense of rational or spiritual inevitability from the Finale, as Perahia so powerfully had, Wang wrangled a dance of time out of even a wild fugue.  Rather than unthread a contrapuntal tangle, she relied on her great technique and unflappable spirit to pile on complexities for the sake of fantastic pianistic possibilities. Sound mattered more than structure, as it matters more to most modern listeners than the audiences of Beethoven’s day.

Though held in awe and widely considered the greatest piano work by the greatest piano composer, the “Hammerklavier” is too imposing to be universally loved and has never suited many of history’s most important pianists. It was not part, for instance, of Vladimir Horowitz’s repertory. Had he played it, however, I would like to think his approach might have had some of the character that Wang brings to the sonata.

She began her recital with the first two of Brahms’ early Ballades, played with an élan that reminded that old Brahms had once been a young man. She then turned to a Horowitz favorite, Schumann’s ever-changeable eight-part “Kreisleriana.” And here she was downright Horowitzian. The character of these dazzlingly inchoate character pieces was that of an unpredictable brain in action, held intact only by the shock therapy of Wang's rhythmic surety.

Horowitz, it turns out, is the key. His pianistic opposite, Perahia, happened to be personally close to Horowitz, who exerted a subtle influence on the young man. For all the drive in his “Hammerklavier,” Perahia maintained an inner freedom that gave his playing life. For all her freedom, Wang maintained a rhythmic drive that allowed her “Hammerklavier” to thrive.

We obviously can’t know whether Beethoven would cheer on Perahia, Wang or both. But if he is not thrilled looking down on what he has wrought as a guide for the modern age with these essential pianists, then heaven has dulled his senses.

 

mark.swed@latimes.com

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