Each new Chinese piano star comes with a tale attached, sometimes severely edited.
Lang Lang was first presented as a triumphantly happy ‘little emperor’, but when the full story emerged in his autobiography, it became clear that in Britain his parental maltreatment would have put him on the ‘at risk’ register. Jue Wang, we are told, was taken twelve miles each day on the back of his mother’s bicycle to have piano lessons. But his later tuition - at the hands of the great Fou Ts’ong - is well documented, as is the subsequent award-winning career which has brought him his London debut at the age of 26.
Self-contained and power-packed, he opened without a hint of ingratiation, giving us Ronald Stevenson’s ‘Peter Grimes Fantasy on Themes from the Opera by Benjamin Britten’. This rebarbative work follows in the Lisztean tradition of showy elaboration, but without any of that composer’s megawatt allure, and it leaves Britten’s opera for dead. Jue Wang gave it resonant force, and loyally extracted what little charm it had to offer.
Then came Liszt proper, in the form of two of his ‘Transcendental Studies’ and the ‘Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude’. Here Jue Wang seemed in his element, giving the first piece impressive sweep, turning the second into a whirling, heady flight, and delivering the third with majestic authority. He produced a range of contrasts through ultra-light and heavily expressive touches, and let this sublime work unfold at its own leisurely pace. Then came a dramatic gear-change, in the form of Liszt’s arrangement of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’. Here too he seemed at home, evoking the glittering ballroom with dazzling grace.
But it was only with his final work that we really got his mettle, for what he did with Sam Raphling’s arrangement of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ was breath-taking. Through alternating passages of earth-shattering violence and primeval calm, he conjured up a world pullulating with mysteries. Everything from the percussively stamping dances to the cloyingly dissonant melodies was here in pristine form, thanks to his marriage of a formidable technique with an overarching vision. Encores by Godowsky, Prokofiev, and Chopin rammed the point home: Jue Wang is the most exciting young pianist yet to emerge from China.