Yuja Wang, Royal Festival Hall, London, review: No other pianist can marshal huge fistfuls of notes at hurtling speed with such insouciant confidence

The pianist who rose to prominence as a teenager is a tour de force worthy of her standing ovation even if she did fly too fast through Brahm’s Handel Variations, Op 24 

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The Independent Culture

It’s a shame Yuja Wang – who rose to prominence as a teenager and was championed by conductors Gustavo Dudamel and Claudio Abbado – ducked out of the Hammerklavier sonata originally billed for this recital. There is no greater challenge. But the programme she chose, starting with Chopin’s Preludes, was challenge enough. The first emerged as a sonorous murmur; the second was lyrical and sorrowing; the third had bright clarity; the fourth an honest plainness; and the fifth was a muted whirligig.

The Beijing-born 30-year-old’s touch had a silky smoothness, and each piece was exquisitely shaped. Some came like miniature dramas – most beautifully in the case of the Raindrop and the suavely tranquil No 17, where her pianissimo evocation of a distant bell plus chanting choir offered a moment of ravishment.

Where Chopin called for virtuosity, she reminded us that no other pianist can marshal huge fistfuls of notes at hurtling speed with such insouciant confidence. But Chopin also calls for blood, on this occasion not a drop was spilt. Segueing from perfect piece to perfect piece, she seemed completely untouched by their emotions: like Prospero’s tempest, each storm here vanished leaving no trace on the still surface of the water. This show was smoke and mirrors, not flesh and blood.

Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel demand an epic delivery which dictates that they should not be taken too fast, but Yuja Wang’s immaculate account went like the wind: one had no sense of the requisite majestic muscularity, or of the intensely sweet pathos which is Brahms’s inimitable voice. No matter: for the encores she was back on home turf, dazzling with Prokofiev, beguiling with Schubert-Liszt and Rachmaninov, and perfuming the atmosphere with Scriabin. Standing ovation, of course.