Joyce Yang shows warmth in piano playing at Wolf Trap

April 29, 2012

For her recital at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday, pianist Joyce Yang began with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3, Op. 31. That’s the place in a traditional recital normally reserved for a tidbit of Scarlatti or early Haydn, put there to warm up the fingers and the audience, but Yang’s reading of the Beethoven served admirably in both respects. And although few pianists can, or even want to, make Beethoven sound easy, she did.

Whether that served Beethoven as admirably depends on whether you think that everything he wrote was colored by his demons or whether you credit him with occasional bursts of good-humored energy. Clearly, Yang is of the latter persuasion and, under her fingers, the sonata bristled with the pleasures of the chase tinged only occasionally with contemplative intensity, and even that she approached sensibly rather than dramatically.

The first impression Yang gives is of the pleasure she takes in the purely physical act of playing the piano. She’s not showy. Her attention to detail and clarity is as impressive as her agility, balance and velocity, but it was only as the music unfolded that her commitment to thought-out musical ideas also became evident.

Her Beethoven was direct and unfussy. Two short pieces by Chopin, the Nocturne No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 18 and “My Joys” (in Liszt’s arrangement of the No. 12, Op. 74 song) were unhurried as she lingered on moments and individual notes that defined Chopin’s voice. She played Lowell Liebermann’s four-movement “Gargoyles” (which she has recorded) with a compelling brio that highlighted the composer’s attachment to the sonorities of the late-19th century and his tentative toe-in-the-water adoption of 20th-century harmonies. And her reading of Schumann’s “Fantasiestucke” paid the composer the honor of letting his music speak for itself, eloquently and without a lot of reinterpretation. For an encore, Yang offered a sensual exploration of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” further testimony to her eclectic talents.

Yang, who was a silver medalist in the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is also a gifted public speaker, and her comments about the music and her approach to it were terrific.

Reinthaler is a freelancer writer.

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