And a visit by a venerable quartet
By Jay Nordlinger
For several years, we have called Yuja Wang a wunderkind, a phenom, a sensation. For how long can we keep talking that way? She’s 25 now. I figure we can continue for a couple more years.
Most recently in New York, she played Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the New York Philharmonic. She does well by Prokofiev. Two seasons ago, she played the Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. She played it to within an inch of its life. Earlier this season, she played the Sonata No. 6, also in Carnegie Hall. Her grasp on the work was sure.
And the Concerto No. 3? First, let me say what was wrong with her performance, on the night I heard her. (She played the concerto on four separate nights.) She entered a hair late. She immediately changed the tempo, making it faster. She changed it further, making it faster yet. She left the poor New York Philharmonic in the dust. The conductor, Jaap van Zweden, looked at her as if to say, “What the . . .?” She was careless and sloppy. She slapped and banged. Prokofiev can be percussive, but it need not be ugly. Where she should have been elegant, she was inelegant. Her sound was not grand enough. Her passagework was bony. Some of her accents were absurd. Etc.
But: I thought to myself, “Never let me become an old fart who doesn’t appreciate youthful fire and abandon.” Wang was electric. She was a girl on a mission. There was actually a little anger in her playing. She was over the top, but she was exciting as hell, and I think Prokofiev himself would have gotten a kick out of it.
She won’t play like this always—but I’m glad she does for now. She will undoubtedly mellow and mature. But fire and abandon are fine musical qualities, especially in the Prokofiev Third.
I often say, “Not every performance has to be a desert-island disc”—a definitive performance, an exemplary performance, for all time. The Prokofiev Third I heard should not be on a recording. But a live concert is a different cat (thank heaven). And Wang was alive, no question.
A week later, the Takács Quartet arrived in Zankel Hall, for two concerts. Formed in Budapest in 1975, the quartet now resides in Boulder. Two of the original members are still with the group. They are Hungarian, whereas the newer members are from different climes.
They started their New York concerts with Janácek’s String Quartet No. 1, nicknamed “the Kreutzer Sonata.” It is a talky, anxious work, a minor masterpiece. The Takács played it knowledgeably and intelligently. They make a better overall sound than they do individually. Nevertheless, the overall sound was at times too fuzzy. And fingers at times were unresponsive. Also, where beauty was called for, the group could not quite summon it.
Next on the program was another String Quartet No. 1, this one by Britten (and without a nickname). It is written in that special Britten tongue that is half modern and half not. Do you know the expression “Second verse, same as the first?” Again the Takács sound was a bit fuzzy, out of focus. Again fingers were somewhat wanting (particularly in the last movement, molto vivace). And again the group played with a general and welcome intelligence.
You can think well without playing well. Usually, it’s better to think well than to play well. And when you can do both—why, then, of course, the world is your oyster.
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