Pianist Tony (Yike) Yang played a short recital in Vancouver last evening, part of the University of British Columbia’s President’s Concert Series. In spite of the very imperfect acoustics of the school’s (notorious) Old Auditorium, I felt that we were in the presence of a young artist with great musicality and maturity - Yang is 19.
The pianist’s reputation certainly preceded him. Winner of many prestigious awards, including, at age 16, 5thprize at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and the Jury Discretionary Award at the 15thVan Cliburn Competition. That said, we all know that there have been many impressive prizewinners with glowing resumes whose playing leave us cold.
Not Tony Yang.
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101, is one of the composer’s most innovative and challenging works. Throughout Yang’s performance, I heard playing of great confidence and, even more importantly, naturalness. It had been said that today’s pianists sound either faceless or idiosyncratic. Yang’s playing does not fall within either of these descriptions. In the lyrical first movement, there was a beautiful feeling of flow, and of organic unity. In the difficult second movement (Vivace alla Marcia), Yang’s playing was utterly compelling, and rhythmically acute. I was particularly taken with how beautifully he handled the brief recall of the first movement opening immediately before the prestomovement. The brief fugal passages were played with great clarity and forward motion, and never sounded ponderous. In time, of course, his interpretation would mature and deepen. But this was remarkably mature and assured playing for so young an age.
Yang’s playing of Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op. 60 revealed the reason for his success in Warsaw in 2015. It was truly beautiful and idiomatic Chopin playing, where one phrase flows naturally into another, and one idea into the next. He really felt the gently rocking motion of the rowing song, as well as underlying eroticism within the music. In the cathartic climax at m. 93, Yang’s playing sounded positively exultant. As in the Beethoven, I sensed an organic unity in his handling of this large work. What is more, it is Chopin playing that, without a trace of histrionics, moves us.
Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuitis the “test piece” for any young pianist, and Yang rose to the challenge and came off the winner. From the shimmering opening of Ondine, with an incredibly even right hand, Yang was in complete command of the work’s considerable technical and musical challenges. His playing of this first movement was ravishing. In Le Gibet, his tempo was rock solid, and he conveyed a feeling of utter stillness, andthe feeling of dread, in the music. Yang’s playing of Scarbowas truly frightening, and he brought out more colours in this movement than I have heard in a long time.
As an encore, Yang played Debussy’s limpid Clair de lune. Seong Jin Cho gave us the same encore last season. Yang’s Debussy has brighter colours, and clearer edges. Both were beautiful in their own individual ways.
A New York critic once wrote about a 29-year-old conductor named Zubin Mehta, “enormously gifted, but still in the process of trying things out. Better this, however, than the easier way out.” I believe the foregoing statement can easily be applied to Tony Yang. As a musician, he is still at the outset of his artistic journey. If he continues to study and deepen as a musician, I think we will be hearing much more about and from Tony Yang.