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Touchingly, Yuja Wang dedicated her latest London appearance to the memory of Radu Lupu, who had died three days earlier. But it’s hard to imagine two more dissimilar pianists than the flamboyant, brilliantly virtuosic Chinese and the retiring, reticent Romanian, for whom keyboard technique was only ever a means to an expressive, poetic end, and never an end in itself.
At the moment, Wang’s playing is still mostly about surfaces. That she has the potential to make her playing more searching, though, was clear at several points during this recital, for which there was no printed programme, just a list of the works being played. Apparently she had not wanted to commit herself in advance and to be as flexible as possible in what she intended to play, although in the event what we did hear, before a flurry of encores, was exactly what had been listed on the Southbank Centre’s website for a number of weeks before the concert.
Sonatas from opposite ends of the 19th century, Beethoven’s Op 31 No 3, and Scriabin’s Third Sonata, anchored the two halves of the programme; each was followed by a couple of 20th-century works in a seamless sequence, with only the briefest of breaks for applause between the items. Technically everything was dazzling, every detail crisp and perfectly articulated, with chords exactly weighted and precisely placed. It was all thoroughly musical, too, never heartless or mechanical, but brilliance and accuracy still often seemed to matter more to Wang than conveying a real sense of what the music was about.
So the baroque archetypes for the movements in Schoenberg’s Suite Op 25, his first completely 12-note work, were as hard to discern as the Spanish inflections in Malága and Lavapiés, two movements from Albeniz’s Iberia, while despite a real sense of faded grand romanticism in the Scriabin, that performance rather lost its way in the slow movement, though that may be as much the composer’s fault as Wang’s. Two of Nikolai Kapustin’s Jazz Preludes were dispatched with all the verve they need, but best of all was a pair of Ligeti’s etudes, Automne à Varsovie and L’escalier du Diable, the tumbling figures of the first eventually collapsing into a black hole off the bottom of the keyboard, the second’s ascending layers finally evaporating in the highest treble. In such music, Wang’s playing is irresistible.