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RAVEL: Piano Con. in G Major; Piano Con. for the Left Hand; FAURE: Ballade in F-sharp Major – Yuja Wang, p./ Tonhalle Orch. Zurich/ Lionel Bringuier – DGG

Yuja Wang’s first “incursion” into French music proves explosive, lyrical and virtuosic, at once.

RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G Major; Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major; FAURE: Ballade in F-sharp Major for Piano Solo, Op. 19 – Yuja Wang, p./ Tonhalle Orch. Zurich/ Lionel Bringuier – DGG B00023931-02, 50:15 (10/9/15) [Distr. by Universal] ****: 

Piano virtuoso Yuja Wang makes her first incursion into the French repertory, inscribing (April-May 2015) the brilliant Ravel concertos, whose jazzy éclat appeals to her flamboyant style. The Concerto in G represents a successful fusion of disparate elements: Mozart’s poise and clarity, Saint-Saens’ wit and digital verve, and a folk element likely traceable to Ravel’s Basque heritage.   At moments in the flurry of colors of the Allegramente first movement, we can detect blues riffs and the throes of Moorish Africa. Wang and Bringuier obviously relish the slow movement, Adagio assai, whose elegant waltz fuses Gershwin with Iberian sensibility in cross rhythm. The various woodwinds – English horn, flute, and oboe add their distinctive touches to a melodic curve that appears seamless, while in its compositional process Ravel remained at wit’s end to wring from his imagination. The jazz trombone and the symphony bassoon collaborate in the frisky moto-perpetuo finale, Presto, in which the keyboard now stands out in full relief against the ripe orchestral colors. Wang’s acrobatics certainly qualify her for any of the Saint-Saens concertos. The colors blend, smear, separate, all in a circus march that whirls in a manner that might have been stolen from Stravinsky’s Petrushka. The final thud from the bass drum caps a performance of volatile, diaphanous fury.

Wang claims the Faure Ballade in its orchestral version as the first piece she played with the full ensemble. Faure dedicated the 1880 solo version to Saint-Saens. An aristocratic intimacy defines the the “nocturnal” piece, which avoids the stentorian outbursts in the ballade styles of Chopin and Liszt. The two main themes seem tightly bound, working in F-sharp Major and e-flat minor.  The rocking theme that evolves seems close to a barcarolle, appearing in 6/8 and 4/4 in a distant B Major that has its own urgency. Cortot called the piece “a series of variations on a prevailing mood.” Wang does educe a magical, virtuoso patina from the piece, granting it a status between salon meditation and brilliant etude.

The Ravel D Major Concerto for Piano, Left Hand (1932) projects a darker image than the G Major Concerto, attributable to its history – from Paul Wittgenstein – and to its often gloomy coloring from the low winds and strings. At times, the keyboard writing becomes strident, approaching the kind of ecstatic, motor collapse Ravel achieves in his major dance forms, Bolero and La Valse. Called a “sonorous phantasmagoria,” the piece almost quotes Stravinsky in its opening bassoon riff, then invokes jazz chords as it thrusts upward and away in a Basque song. The left hand enjoys a brilliant tessitura glissando, extending from low A to a high D over five octaves. The trumpet’s triple tonguing will recall Ravel’s capability to score Mussorgsky. In its lyrical moments, the left hand assumes two and perhaps a third hand, joining with the winds, which have the original rising motif, which builds up again for the shattering explosion to the march filigree that becomes “oriental” by way of Mother Goose. Later, the harp and the keyboard will exchange roles, moving to the cadenza whose thirty-second notes Wang gobbles up with requisite panache.

Great acoustics mark this enterprise, the sound-masters Simon Eadon and Stephan Flock at their best. I would rate this D Major Concerto performance – along with the live broadcasts of Robert Casadesus with, respectively, Mitropoulos and Celibidache – as my preferred versions.

—Gary Lemco

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