In an age where solo debuts compete for attention like so many “selfie” portraits, it is not easy to stand out. It helps if one comes with the endorsement of a master in the field, as did Chinese-born 26-year-old pianist Larry Weng, presented by Professor Aldo Parisot of the Yale School of Music where Mr. Weng is currently a graduate student. What also “helps” (and this is much deeper than mere career advice, hence the quotation marks) is the attendance of even more powerful luminaries – in this case Schubert, Chopin, and Ravel – with the kind of playing that invites the composers in as the guests of honor, rather than mere facilitators. It happens less often than one would like, but Mr. Weng is an extremely sensitive musician and mature interpreter who did just that. He brought great music new life in one of the outstanding debut recitals of the season.
Mr. Weng’s program opened with Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie Op. 61, a masterpiece from late in Chopin’s life. One doesn’t normally think of this work as an opener, partly because it has such autumnal, ruminative qualities that lend themselves to the post-intermission lull – and partly because of its interpretive difficulties; Mr. Weng, however, made me a believer in this programming. The sprawling improvisatory opening became a perfect prelude to lure the listener into Mr. Weng’s musical world. Instead of fighting its meandering tendencies as some do in effort to keep it from falling apart at the seams, he followed its dreaming lines wherever they seemed to lead. It had spontaneity and inevitability, along with convincing cohesion – quite a feat! Contrary to popular musical advice, yielding to each moment can at times unify the whole better than straitjacketing a creation into some perceived planned structure. In any case, Mr. Weng’s expressive phrasing and tonal beauty carried the listener effortlessly to its brilliant ending. His technique was more than ample, a few smudges towards the end notwithstanding.
Oiseaux tristes followed – in beautiful sequence – bringing us into the world of Ravel’s Miroirs, of which Mr. Weng also included the movements Alborada del gracioso and La vallée des cloches. While I’ve usually preferred to hear (and play) these as a complete set, I confess that I barely missed the omitted ones (Noctuelles and Une Barque sur l’océan). Also, after the expansive approach that Mr. Weng took to the Chopin (giving it a somewhat longer duration than the average), the shortened group was welcome. Undiluted and undistracted by Noctuelles, the delicate Oiseaux Tristes was particularly poignant in isolation. Only the fiery Alborada couldsnap one out of the trance, and it certainly did the trick with this pianist’s crisp rhythms and fine finger-work. Mr. Weng handled its formidable repeated-note passages expertly. The breathtaking musical colors of La vallée des cloches closed this set, leaving only the same composer’s La Valse for the first half. La Valse is a rousing closer to a half – and it was given a rousing rendition here. Most performances of this work leave one wanting just a bit more tweaking from the multiple editions available (printed and other), as Ravel left some problematic sketchiness in his transcription from orchestra to piano. Often the orchestral textures are either thickened to excess or left sounding bare or skeletal, so rarely is every listener happy in each section of it; all in all, though, Mr. Weng’s sense of flair for this French-Viennese flavored Waltz carried the day, and the overall sweep was wonderful.
The entire second half was devoted to Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959, among the composer’s great late masterpieces. Here, perhaps most in the entire recital, one could hear the extent of Mr. Weng’s artistry, mature beyond his young years. He sustained enormously long lines and sections while never forgetting Schubert, the lieder composer, and Schubert, the chamber music composer. One could quibble here and there, for example over a bit of rushing in the last movement (arguably justifiable in the name of momentum), but overall it was one of the finest live performances of this work that I’ve heard. Hearty ovations were rewarded with an encore of more Schubert, the Impromptu in G-flat, Op. 90, No. 3 (D. 899/3). It was sublime, again with surprising little turns of phrase that gave it life without tearing at the fabric of the piece. Mr. Weng should have a very bright future, and I join his audience in looking forward to hearing more from him.