Fashion and encores are typically considered optional trimmings in classical performance, but for Yuja Wang, these things are as crucial a piece of a performance as the piano itself. At Jordan Hall on Friday night, the Chinese-born pianist transfixed with a solo recital that included four composers, two gleaming gowns (one long and trailing, the other short, skintight, and sequined) by Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu, five encores, too many standing ovations to count, and one fascinating glimpse into the processes that drive her.
From the moment she stepped onstage, it was clear she had come to impress. Wang made her name with vigorous performances of spectacular Russian repertoire, and such pieces made up the bulk of this recital, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. In the first half’s selections from Rachmaninoff’s Preludes and Études-Tableaux and the second half’s rendition of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat major, she played on the vertex of an ever-tilting seesaw between manicured technical discipline and wild surges of energy.
Her left hand was more ferocious, drawing from a chunkier collection of textures and sometimes landing with an audible thud on the keys. Her right hand contributed more buoyant, delicate work, and the dynamic between the hands persisted regardless of where on the keyboard each was. Below the keyboard, her towering gold stilettos manipulated the pedals judiciously.
She gave the impression that she could do most of it without a second thought, whether dispatching the thunderous finale to the Prokofiev sonata, conjuring a garden of iridescent trills in Scriabin’s Sonata No. 10, or galloping through the parade of crowd-pleasing encores. These included a slightly overcooked rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” and a thrilling take on Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade.”
But the truly unforgettable moments of the evening belonged to the final minutes in the first half, when Wang took on three Ligeti etudes. Here, the full extent of her effort and concentration was palpable as she plunged into Ligeti’s process-driven sonic illusions: a spidery dance in Étude No. 3, “Touches bloquées,” an Escher-esque impossible staircase in Étude No. 9, “Vertige,” and a whirl of tonal enigmas in Étude No. 1, “Desordre.” Past the sequins and showmanship, the athleticism and intellect at the performance’s core was fully visible.
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Jordan Hall, May 11.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.