Wynona Wang in Recital – Beethoven, Liszt, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Mellos, Janáček – Eloquence Decca

by | Jul 8, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Wynona Wang in Recital = BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 23; MELLOS: Preludes; RACHMANINOFF: Romance, Prelude in G-flat Major, Piano Sonata No. 1; LISZT: Après une lecture du Dante; JANÁČEK: Piano Sonata; RAVEL: Le Tombeau de Couperin – Wynona Wang, piano – Eloquence Decca 487 5651 (2 CDs = 113:06, detailed content list below) (4/20/24) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

 Beijing-born Wynona Wang won the Grand Prize at the 2018 Concert Artists Guild International Competition. A pupil of Alessio Bax at SMU, she is also a pupil of Robert McDonald at Juilliard, in the process of earning her Masters Degree. This 2023 recital from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and spectacularly produced by Jim Atkins, displays Wang’s impressive technique in a variety of classical styles.

Wang, in “Live Recordings,” opens with Beethoven’s ever potent 1804 Appassionata Sonata, from whose terraced dynamics and Neapolitan harmonies she draws some well-wrought dramatic effects.  After the heroic convulsions of the Allegro assai, Wang sets a serene tone for the Andante and its four variations. Thoughtfully poised, the music evolves as a singing meditation, eschewing the percussive temptations that often seduce more virile practitioners of Beethoven’s craft. Without a break but with portentous, bravura filigree, Beethoven launches into his toccata-like last movement, Allegro ma non troppo – Presto, whose innate sonata form seems concealed amidst a torrent of unleashed, swirling passions. The “fate” motif to be fully enunciated in the Fifth Symphony seems to haunt prior the rhythmic pulse of the progression, whose momentum threatens us with vertigo. The second half of the main theme initiates another volcanic series of gestures, culminating in the Presto version of a Hapsburg military march. The dramatic sweep that Wang impresses upon this music proves undeniably convincing.

Wang follows with music by an Australian opus demanded for competition repertory, two preludes by Aristea Mellos (b. 1987), a native of the island of Crete whose family moved to Sydney, Australia. From the Preludes – Book I, Wang chooses No. VI: “Me canse de vivir me caso” (I tire of living; I’m getting married), taken from an emblem on a sash of a bride-to-be in Seville, 1916; and the Prelude No. X, “Go to sleep my beloved, whilst I sing you a lullaby.” The former presents a jazzy, Iberian sensibility, an askew seguidilla in flamenco style, based on a confrontation of two prospective brides who faced off at the Casa Anselma. The lullaby offers a contrapuntal hybrid, made up of a Greek cradle-song from Samos, the Brahms Intermezzo No. 1 from Op. 117, and the Prelude from the G Major solo Cello Suite, BWV 1007. In her accompanying note, Wang pays tribute to her mother, who first sang her the lullaby, and her daughter, who intoned the ancient tune when she received a stuffed toy giraffe. 

From Rachmaninoff’s set of Six Poems, Op. 38, Wang plays the composer’s own transcription of No. 3, “Daisies,” set as a bouquet or chain of flowers vibrant with color and inborn energies. The lightness of Wang’s trill does much to bring illumination to the moment. From lightness to impending darkness we journey, as Wang addresses the mighty Dante Sonata, the No. 7 from Liszt’s 1856 Second Book of Years of Pilgrimage – Italy. A compressed vision itself of Dante’s Divine Comedy in dramatic, musical form, the piece opens with tritones and various, pungently anguished whiffs of “Inferno.” The secondary theme could be an analogy of the Devil’s power “to assume a pleasing shape,” so liquid and alluring the melody and its high arpeggios. Wang imposes a fierce grip on the music’s subsequent evolution in its furious dialogues among competing registers, until the opening materials catapult in opposed scalar motion, resolving into Liszt’s preferred F# Major for spiritual reconciliation. Wang does not allow the percussive elements to distort the essential lyricism that marks Liszt’s progress to exalted bliss. Wang’s rich keyboard sonority assumes an organ texture as a chorale emerges, juxtaposed against rhapsody-style bravura in broken runs that recount the initial harmonies, now resolved in Liszt’s spectacular vision of God’s plan.  

Disc 2 opens with Janáček’s autobiographical work taken from Czech political history: Sonata 1.X.1905 recounts the incident of 1 October 1905, the murder of a Moravian carpenter’s apprentice, Frantisek Pavlik, bayoneted in the streets of Brno by militants of the ruling Austrian party for his having supported the idea of a Czech-speaking university. This music had its premiere in Brno 27 January 1906, performed by Ludmilla Tuckova, who had rescued, by having secretly copied, the score of the work, in spite of Janáček’s despair – the third movement never recovered – and salvaging the first two movements, Presentiment and Death. The latter movement features bell chords and parlando equivalents of Czech dialect.  A series of brief motives characterizes the first movement’s angry declamations and moments of lyric regret. The “death” motif asserts itself in five notes after a 16th rest. Wang instills a mounting sense of hostility, the clamor of competing voices. Whatever emotional austerity Janáček intends, Wang’s lush sonority applies a romantic luster that creates what Joseph Conrad termed “the fascination of the abomination.” The staggered, repeated phrases suggest the paroxysms of grief, a moral failure of infinite sadness.

In 1914 Maurice Ravel had begun to transcribe selected keyboard pieces by François Couperin; but the entry by France into World War I deepened Ravel’s nationalist sensibilities. As the mounting death toll consumed several of Ravel’s friends and colleagues, he conceived his Le Tombeau de Couperin as a tribute to fallen contemporaries, rather upbeat in character, since Ravel considered the silence of death testament enough to its effect. The opening Prelude, in 12/16, Wang delivers in a liquid E minor, coloristic and seductive, extending the effect to G and back again. The succeeding 2/4 Rigaudon has been adapted by Ravel from Rameau, rhythmic and gently percussive. Ravel’s patented “orientalism” manifests itself in whole-tone touches and a pentatonic scale that invests the initial C major with idiosyncratic hues. The sad Minuet in G may remind auditors of the fairy-tale tenor of Mother Goose Suite, while its central section demurely hints at the sequence Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass. Ravel called his final movement, Toccata (in E minor), “pure Saint-Saens” for its fluent, virtuosic efficiency. Brilliantly transparent in touch and deftly kinetic, Wang’s rendition bestows more of her grandly hued keyboard palette. The world of “Ondine” seems nigh, even as theme of death infiltrates this suite and the earlier, more flamboyant piano suite Gaspard de la Nuit.

Wang concludes her ambitious survey with two more works by Rachmaninoff, the G-flat Major Prelude, Op. 23/10, and the epic 1907 Piano Sonata No. 1. The Prelude offers a moment of rarified repose, sylvan consolation, expressed in gently syncopated, chromatic filigree. That the First Piano Sonata has become a regular concert staple in the past two generations cannot be denied. What began as a deliberate imitation of Liszt, a “Faust Sonata,” attempts to conform to the Goethe legend in characterization and to Liszt’s 1857 Eine Faust-Symphonie in musical design. The lush Allegro moderato enjoys plastic, rhythmic fluctuation from Wang and a resonant, chant-like evocation of Faust’s declarations of love: the very contradictions in Faust’s soul. Scalar patterns, intervals of the fifth. Potent trills, and repeated notes saturate a texture meant to seal a “devil’s bargain” that may offer a glimmer of hope as the movement resolves into the major mode. The swirls of notes – Wang makes it sound like a toccata in color effects –allude to moments in Rachmaninoff’s own concertos in C minor and D minor, as well as Liszt’s kindred Dante Sonata. 

The Lento, conceived as an extensive, romantic dialogue, proceeds momentarily in D, then settles into F Major, where Rachmaninoff employs stretto, polyphonic effects to overlap complementary and soothing motifs. The lyrical, nostalgic impulse in Rachmaninoff Wang realizes in rich chords and glistening scales and arpeggios. Rachmaninoff exploits the interval of a fifth in rocking pulsations. This pastoral setting will move to a cadenza that leads to the music’s reprise of the opening. The swelling melody generously drips with impassioned allusions to the tone-poem The Isle of the Dead. This music concludes in duet between motives in the “Faust” first movement and the repeated tropes of Gretchen’s pleas and exclamations of devotion.

The 1907 Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, perhaps his most ambitious imitation of Franz Liszt, whom Rachmaninoff deeply admired. Specifically, the sonata was to assume the grand design of Liszt’s 1857 Eine Faust-Symphonie, after Goethe, with the same “program” of characters, Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. The work had its premiere at the hands of Konstantin Igumnov, who had demanded extensive cuts in the original score – some 100+ measures – and still, the music resonates with passing allusions to the contemporaneous, piano concertos in C Minor and D Minor.  Rachmaninoff proves economical in his use of recurrent tropes that transmute in the course of all three movements: scalar patterns, intervals of the fifth, fierce trills, and repeated notes. Want imbues the opening Allegro moderato with a propulsive determination, offset by a chorale or chant impulse that inclines the Devil’s-bargain—making Faust aspire to a degree of hope for salvation, a glimmer of D Major in the movement’s epilogue. Through the swirl of passions, we hear echoes of Liszt, as in his own Dante Sonata, the anguished urge of contradiction in Faust’s soul, moving to a huge climax in huge chords from Wang that, nevertheless, fails to resolve the Romantic Agony.The Lento, conceived as an extended dialogue, proceeds momentarily in D, then settles into F Major, where Rachmaninoff employs stretto, polyphonic effects to overlap complementary and soothing motifs. The lyrical, nostalgic impulse in Rachmaninoff Wang well nourishes in rich chords and glistening scales and arpeggios. Rachmaninoff exploits the interval of a fifth in rocking pulsations. This pastoral setting will move to a cadenza that leads to the music’s reprise of the opening. The swelling melody drips with impassioned allusions to the tone-poem The Isle of the Dead. This music concludes in the manner of a duet between motives in the “Faust” first movement and the repeated tropes of Gretchen’s pleas and exclamations of devotion.

The Lento, conceived as an extended, romantic dialogue, proceeds momentarily in D, then settles into F Major, where Rachmaninoff employs stretto, polyphonic effects to overlap complementary and soothing motifs. The lyrical, nostalgic impulse in Rachmaninoff Wang well nourishes in rich chords and glistening scales and arpeggios. Rachmaninoff exploits the interval of a fifth in rocking pulsations. This pastoral setting will move to a cadenza that leads to the music’s reprise of the opening. The swelling melody drips with impassioned allusions to the tone-poem The Isle of the Dead. This music concludes in the manner of a duet between motives in the “Faust” first movement and the repeated tropes of Gretchen’s pleas and exclamations of devotion. 

The massive last movement, Allegro molto, allows Rachmaninoff to revel in the virtuoso fervors of an impassioned, demonic, and frenzied gallop, akin to the Berlioz “Ride to the Abyss” from The Damnation of Faust. The tolling bells, signifying the ubiquitous Dies Irae in this composer’s oeuvre, ripple through contrapuntal, modal scales and brisk runs, making the three-note, gallop-march even more rhetorically fatal. Including a lovely, delicately arpeggiated melody that arises, twice, in the midst of Faust’s imminent damnation, the music sings magically even as it maniacally plummets, the Dies Irae in the bass awaiting his fall. When that fall occurs – through Wang’s tumultuous velocities –  Faust has recalled past memories and regrets, a tearful preparation to concede his soul to the Devil. Wang plays these pearly figures in the manner of an exalted, Lisztian etude-tableau, while entirely a Rachmaninoff event. Highly ornamented, the Dies Irae comes crashing down, now in a four-note pattern rife with the “Fate” of the Beethoven Fifth, so Faust’s pitiful shrieks for mercy have incurred only divine retribution in Wang’s voluptuous coda.

—Gary Lemco

Wynona Wang in Recital

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata”;
MELLOS: Preludes – Book I: VI and X;
RACHMANINIOFF: Romance, Op. 38/3 “Daisies”; Prelude in G-flat Major, Op. 23/10; Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28
LISZT: Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata;
JANÁČEK: Piano Sonata “1.X. 1905” (From the Street);
RAVEL: Le Tombeau de Couperin: 4 movements;

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