Start at the end. For the final encore of her Celebrity Series recital on Friday, pianist Yuja Wang played Vladimir Horowitz’s “Variations on a Theme from Carmen,” itself a feat, a fearsome, finger-tangling thicket. Wang actually played it faster than Horowitz did. Does that mean she played it better?
Variations on that question could be pondered throughout Wang’s Boston solo recital debut. Her technique, a rare combination of speed, power, and precision, is redoubtable. It is also almost always front and center. Wang’s interpretations are inseparable from — and sometimes simply are — the sheer athleticism of her playing.
For some pieces, it was ideal. Serge Prokofiev’s feisty, op. 28 Piano Sonata no. 3, for example, became overpoweringly iconoclastic: fierce, riveting assaults alternating with crisp whispers. Wang emphasized the torrential in both loud and soft sections, often pitching all the notes at near-equal volume, an energetic flurry of hammered attacks. It was playing that privileged impetus and flow.
The approach paid uncommon dividends in Frederic Chopin’s 3rd Piano Sonata, op. 58, in many ways the most intriguing part of the concert. Brisk speeds and buzzing textures stripped away the sentimentality sometimes reflexively applied to this music. It was Chopin as pioneering sound artist, his preferred medium the piano’s very specific machinery and resonance. (Two other Chopin works — the C minor Nocturne, op. 48, no. 1, and the Third Ballade — followed deliberate, meticulously controlled calm-to-storm trajectories that were impressive, but also more emotionally distant.)
Momentum overpowered Nikolai Kapustin’s op. 41 Variations, which takes the opening of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and recasts it in a series of polished, fly-in-amber jazz tableaux, expertly evoked. But Wang’s breakneck, downhill-slalom pace buried any swinging rhythms under a blizzard of passagework. (Wang’s first encore, a transcription of Art Tatum’s famous 1933 recording of “Tea for Two,” started with more lilt, but fell into the same hurtling style.)
Stravinsky’s own Three Movements from “Petrushka” — a formidable virtuosic machine — would seem a perfect fit for Wang, and for two movements, it was: explosive and calculated at the same time, coursing with ruthless cool. But in the final movement, Stravinsky’s channel-surfing contrasts of choreographic color blurred together into more an etude than a narrative. Or was it an etude all along? Wang’s playing was always true to the piano’s actuality, its discrete percussiveness, its steely ring. The real drama of the repertoire, she asserted, is in the keys and hammers and muscle of its realization.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.