Joyce Yang

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Published: 31st July, 2018

Pianist Joyce Yang first came to international attention with her stunning performances at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition where she was not only the youngest competitor, but eventually went on to take out the Silver Medal. Her career since then has been a busy one, as recitalist, chamber musician and concerto soloist with distinguished orchestras and conductors across the globe. As part of Musica Viva’s International Concert Season Joyce has presented a dozen recitals in all states in a jam-packed schedule that has also included several masterclasses. Yang clearly relishes the life of the touring virtuoso.

The musical hors d’oeuvre for last night’s recital in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was a clutch of popular Preludes by Rachmaninoff – each more commonly heard as recital encores rather than aperitifs. These were followed by a dramatically-charged reading of Janacek’s two-movement sonata 1.X.1905, a work which poignantly depicts the despair and turmoil of a political uprising in Brno that resulted in the death of a local worker. This was spell-binding playing from Yang and only confirmed the fact that the piano music of the Czech composer, more known for his operas and symphonic works, deserves more frequent hearing.

The first half closed with piano competition war-horse Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. Fortunately Yang has the technical chops to meets its many and diverse challenges. The well-known La Folía theme was presented more boldly than usual, but the Jota aragonesaunfolded with a multi-hued refined touch before the barn-storming closing pages, the coda of which was new to this reviewer at least.

Australian contemporary music would be much the poorer without Julian Burnside AO QC. Burnside has commissioned innumerable works in a variety of genres from seemingly all of Australia’s leading composers. The latest offering comes from young Australian composer Elizabeth Younan, written for Joyce Yang who warmly embraces the thrill of performing contemporary music. At the Van Cliburn Yang boldly programmed Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No 1 (1990), which says as much about her daring as it does about the esteem in which this Australian work is held world-wide. While Younan’s three-movement sonata does not match the musically-arresting substance or technical skill of her more-experienced mentor Vine’s two-movement Sonata, it nevertheless has some interest. Whereas the opening movement contains lots of meandering busy-ness, it was the evocative textures and spacious pointillism of the middle movement that were perhaps most successful on first hearing. The third movement, once again Allegro, contained many Vine-esque pianistic textures. Yang, reading from a tablet as is the trend nowadays, gave as persuasive a reading as the composer could have wished for.

It was however perhaps unwise to program this work immediately before Liszt’s monumental Sonata in B minor. Dedicated to Robert Schumann, it is one of the 19thcentury’s musical masterworks, whether for piano or indeed any medium. The sonata is something of a morceau du jour at the moment. I heard Canadian pianist Avan Yu play the same sonata only two nights earlier as part of a tour sponsored by the Sydney International Piano Competition, and our own Kristian Chong presents it as part of a concert series at Monash University in a few days. It is a difficult work, not so much for its virtuosity – it is far from Liszt’s most pianistically challenging work – but rather for the vast expansive canvas, so carefully constructed and thematically unified that can so easily sound fragmented and discursive in less able hands.

While I felt that Avan Yu’s interpretation – which similarly was presented at the close of an impressive recital – better captured the sonata’s taut, imposing structure, sustaining attention from go to whoa – no easy task in this thirty-minute single movement work – Yang’s reading also had much to offer. She magically captured the mystery of the spacious other-worldy opening lines before launching demonically into the dizzying cascading arpeggios of the main opening material. The concluding pages were another highlight, here Liszt eschewing the jubilant crowd-pleasing whizz-bang finale of the Spanish Rhapsody for a more pensive, conclusion that fades into the musical ether.

Yang’s encore – the slow Danza de la Moza Donosa from Ginastera’s early Three Argentinian Dances – was exquisitely shaped, revealing Yang’s sensitivity for harmonic as well as melodic nuance. Yang deftly explored the coloristic potential of the una corda soft pedal, and the gentle, unexpected dissonance of the final chord perfectly summed up the richly evocative hues of this graceful miniature.

This review ends with a mea culpa. Due to confusion over starting times on my part, I missed the opening Rachmaninoff Preludes. Artists of the calibre of Joyce Yang go to great lengths to construct recital programs that are both balanced and complementary while also constructing a deliberate narrative and stylistic arc.  Moreover Yang is by reputation a formidable interpreter of Rachmaninoff. I can only assume that these opening miniatures would have added considerably to the overall impression of the recital. It was definitely my loss to have missed the occasion to hear them interpreted by Joyce Yang.

Musica Viva’s next International Concert features the stunning violinist Ray Chen, August 14 and August 25 (7pm start!). Be sure to secure your tickets before they sell out, as they surely will for this popular artist.


Glenn Riddle was our reviewer for Joyce Yang’s concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre, on July 28, 2018.