English profiles

Arnhem, 24 May 2013

Yuja Wang took the world by storm, only a few years ago. At the piano, she is fearless and actually during interviews she is not afraid either to give her opinion on a lot of different subjects. She was a delight to speak to: self-critical, realistic, yet very witty. And disarmingly honest. She made me smile when she said in the middle of the interview: “Wow, I am talking a lot, which I sometimes don’t do during interviews, you must be nice!” I took it as a compliment…

Willem Boone (WB): You played a recital that one could call “challenging” from a technical standpoint, how important is technique for you?

Yuja Wang (YW): I don’t think of music and technique separately, there is no dichotomy. If I am good in technique, I am good with the music too. The programme of this recital covers a short period of time, except the first piece, Gargoyles by Lowell Liebermann. It is a bit of a schizophrenic piece.

WB: In what way?

YW: In a schizophrenic way (laughs).  I like Scriabin; I know his second sonata, which I recorded. However, the 6th sonata is very new to me, its character is unfathomable. It evokes a scary, mysterious and alien world. I was so scared to play the first chord, since it is so dark! Everything seems to crumble down there … Something similar happens in La Valse, at the end everything seems to collapse.

WB: The programme note described Scriabin’s 6th sonata as “horrible”, how horrible is it really?

YW: I think it is meant in the sense of “terrifying”. There are a lot of indications in his music like “concentrated” , “hysterious” and sometimes also in French, for instance ”ailé”, but what do they mean after all?

WB: Do they give you clues for interpretation?

YW: Yes, very good clues. The more I play the 6th sonata, the more I find it really genius. Scriabin adds a lot of colours. The whole composition is formless, it is assembled in a crazy way. It is disorganized and in this respect it is the opposite of La Valse. I am curious about discovering such a new sound world and I like it.

WB: Did he write this sonata in the period when  he had “lost it?”

YW: He was in the beginning of losing it… The 6th, 7th and 8th sonatas are really hard to play, the 9th and 10th are easier to understand.

WB: How do you memorize a piece like the 6th sonata?

YW: It was really hard, but once I know the harmonies and hidden melodies, I am ok.

WB: And how long did it take you?

YW: I started at Christmas, but it hardly took me two weeks. I had to, because it was in my schedule!

WB: Do you put yourself tasks timewise?

YW: I hate to do this, but agents always ask me certain pieces in advance, so I scheduled it when I did not know the piece yet!

WB: You do not seem to be afraid of anything and you play the most challenging repertoire like Rachmaninov Third Concerto, Bartok Second Concerto, Prokofiev Second Concerto, Petrouchka… at such a young age. Is there anything left  for, say, the next ten or twenty years?

YW: O yes, so much! There is a lot of Brahms I have not done and someone suggested Kapustin which I have never tried. I am also interested in Iberia and new composers…

WB: Is there anything that scares you in the piano repertoire?

YW: Yes, I am afraid of Bach! He was the first composer I learnt when I was young. It may sound as a cliché, but his music is peaceful and good for the soul. However, Bach is something I’d like to play for myself. I would be so scared to play one of his Partitas! By the way, I am a big admirer of Glenn Gould..

WB: Mozart is also a composer who seems to scare a lot of pianists, what about you?

YW: I love his operas, but right now I am not into Mozart. He is maybe overrated, since people always call him “a genius” , I think he is for people before 12 and after 60 (laughs). Compared to Mozart, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov are way easier! I have to say that I like Horowitz’s Mozart playing…

WB: You do?

WB: Speaking of great pianists, have you often been compared to Martha Argerich?

YW: We are both women and have black hair, but other than that, it is a cliché. She was the best of her generation and I want to be the best of my generation. In Tokyo they compare me to Kissin and Pollini..

WB: And what do you think of such a comparison?

YW: The only comparison I like is with Horowitz, although I do not like his Beethoven and Chopin. People think he had a brilliant technique, but it was not all about technique. He was basically a magician, there was a very strong theatrical aspect in his playing.

WB: It has been said about Horowitz that he was “a great pianist but a shallow musician”

YW: You cannot say that, as soon as he plays, you know it is him, that is not something everybody has! There was this concert in Tokyo where he played very badly (It was in 1983 when Horowitz was on medication).. I watch it every time I feel bad about my own playing…

WB: I managed to watch the entire concert the other day on Youtube and even though the playing was messy and technically insecure, there was some of the old magic in Chopin’s Polonaise Fantaisie…

YW: I never went that far..  Horowitz took risks during concerts, he risked himself..

WB: You just mentioned that the Japanese compared you to both Kissin and Pollini, why is that?

YW: I have no idea, ask the Japanese (laughs). I  love Pollini, he and Kissin are both  perfection

WB: A lot of critics seem to refer of Pollini as a “cold technician”, what is your opinion on his playing?

YW: They say the same about me!

WB: Does that make you angry?

YW: No, it does not really matter, during a concert, nobody is playing but myself and only I know how good or bad I am doing! As to Pollini, he was the first pianist I heard when I was young, Kissin is one of my idols, too. It is probably true that both became colder and more intellectual over the years. There are other pianists I like: Pletniev, Pogorelich, Volodos, Sokolov..

WB: I once read that you met Kissin and that it was a “catastrophe”? In what way?

YW: He can hardly talk. However, I took a lesson on Prokofiev 6th sonata with him in Verbier. Interestingly, his teacher who always travels with him heard me practise and she thought it was him..

WB: How did you like that lesson?

YW: It was amazing, all difficulties disappeared when he taught. It was really vivid and inspiring. He is also very intuitive. I was in love with his lessons!

WB: When did this happen?

YW: It was back in 2010. He was there when I played Rachmaninov Second Concerto. But you know, I do not like my own Rachmaninov playing, I like myself better in Prokofiev.

WB: That is surprising, since you played Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata tonight?

YW: The music should be giving back to you when you play, when I perform Rachmaninov I put in so much, but nothing comes back…

WB: How do you manage to keep up with this job?

YW: I do not think in terms of “a job”, I do not have a job, it is my life. I have lived a lot more years than my age!

WB: You seem quite together!

YW: Probably because I like it. It is a fulfilling life; I have been playing the piano for ever, but I do not want to be a piano player. I want to do something through music. Classical music offers so much variety; you fall in love with music and you enrich people’s lives (thinks) … this sounds like bullshit, she knows how to do smooth talk (laughs).

WB: Are you nervous about the Amsterdam concert on Sunday (2 days later in the “Meesterpianisten” series at the Concertgebouw, WB)?

YW: Yes, it is the second time I will play there. The first time I did  Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Before this concert, I gave a recital at Carnegie Hall.

WB: What did you play there?

YW: The same programme as tonight and after Amsterdam, I will go to Vienna.

WB: Wow, you play in all the important venues of the world, one after the other! When will you be back in the Netherlands?

YW: I will be playing Shostakovitch First Piano Concerto with Maris Janssons, but that is another composition I have not studied yet…