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Haochen Zhang Long Awaited New York Recital Debut

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
11/18/2017 -  
Robert Schumann: Kinderszenen, opus 15 – Symphonic Etudes, opus 13
Franz Liszt: Transcendental Etudes: 5. “Feux Follets” & 12. “Chasse-Neige”
Leos Janácek: V mlhách
Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata No. 7 in B flat, opus 83

Haochen Zhang (piano)

H. Zhang (© Benjamin Ealovega)

Shortly after co-winning the Gold Medal at the Thirteenth International Van Cliburn Piano Competition, this 19 year old Chinese pianist, who was bound to have a major solo career, came briefly to New York City for a recital offered at the Flushing Town Hall in the midst of the largest Chinese community in Queens, NY. This recital, as I recall, was a free event, and my dominant memory was of (to put it charitably) not the most attentive audience in history. He was, of course, their boy, and they came to show their admiration and support, bringing along tons of very young children and other denizens who perhaps were not schooled in matters of concert etiquette. That was almost exactly 8 years ago and now (on Nov. 18) Mr. Zhang has finally made his official New York Recital Debut at Zankel Hall, where the noise is provided free of charge not by inattentive fans but by the constant rumble of the subway, which only rarely can be masked by very loud playing, which was not always the case with this generally sensitive pianist.

He devoted the first half of this recital to works of Schumann (similar to Daniil Trifonov, who a year ago also chose that composer for the first half of his recital), and as justification offered his intriguing insights in the very well written program booklet. The Scenes from Childhood, as we know, is a collection of short character pieces supposedly depicting children and their sudden joys and mood swings. Those miniatures were, as pointed out in the notes, appreciated by Liszt himself, who according to a letter to Schumann played them already in 1839 for his little daughter to her delight. Mr. Zhang captured the capricious character of these visions fugitives (a title later used by Prokofiev for his own set of miniatures), and I was impressed by his tenderness, sensitivity and nice touch. That was a performance geared toward the lyrical side of this whimsical work which I actually never regarded as having anything to do with children, but we the listeners like to be guided – or goaded – by titles which supposedly help us to better absorb the music.

The Symphonic Etudes, which followed were more problematic: here we have the issue of editions, as there are several that differ from each other in number of Etudes and also textually; then there is a matter of which of the added five variations to keep or to skip, not to mention the performance itself that was only partially satisfying. Mr. Zhang can certainly negotiate the notes and the notorious Etude No. IX (with the Presto chords) – perhaps one of the hardest moments in all of Schumann’s piano music – was dispatched with blinding speed and utter ease. Some of his “editorial” choices were more satisfying than others and he mercifully kept only three out of the five variations that were added to the set posthumously in 1873. But the general feeling, perhaps after the revelatory second half of the recital was that it was still “Schumann in search of a performer”. Some slower etudes were borderline plodding albeit played as before with a lovely sound. The Finale was fast and quite lightweight but at the same time surprisingly shapeless, showing a sameness of approach and lacking a sense of true victorious, triumphant ending. Though there were, of course, some stunning moments, as a whole I found the performance somewhat inadequate.

After intermission, it seemed that another pianist entered the stage: he offered two of the Transcendental Etudes of Franz Liszt and it is not an easy task to start with the fiendishly difficult “Feux follets”, which under his fingers received a piquant, menacing and scarier than usual reading. In “Chasse-Neige” that followed, Zhang masterfully conveyed the feeling of a blizzard, recreating the sense of howling of the wind and swirling snow. In my opinion, it is one of the most realistic, compelling tone poems for the piano. The sensitive side of the pianist showed itself in the dreamy, introspective four movements that form Janácek’s cycle In the Mists. The predilection for the Moravian composer was on display in Mr. Zhang’s new CD, on which he plays Sonata 1.X.1905, and was further explored during this recital. As in most of Janácek’s works, the pianist has to make sense out of short motifs, broken phrases, sudden sights, the juxtaposing of vehemence and moments of ruminative reflection: in all those respects I found Mr. Zhang’s interpretation compelling, stylish, and tonally alluring.

The most famous of all Prokofiev’s sonatas, No. 7 belongs to the trilogy of so called “war-sonatas”, though the horrors of the Second World War were yet to be experienced when the work was completed. Here I had an impression that the lightweight, clinical, sharp-edged approach of this pianist brought to mind a drawing pen rather than a traditional brush. The tempi were on the very fast side and the whole had a rare effect of chiaroscuro. The last movement Precipitato is very effective in a more measured tempo, but here the hard-driven, maniacal perpetual motion created in my mind almost an answer to Ravel’s “Scarbo”. It was not the only interpretation of the work I would take with me to the desert island, but yet on its own was as persuasive as any of the best.

The encores showed again a combination of great piano playing and a sense of color and subtlety. The “Danse russe” from Petrushka probably could not have been executed by dancers in that speed, but it was exciting and showed some individual touches in the handling of the chords. Debussy’s Prelude “The Girl With The Flaxen Hair” was lovely in its simplicity and perhaps an example of wry humor, as there were a very few blond ladies in the audience. My only complaint, but a major one, regarding the encores was this pianist’s unwillingness to withhold playing until the audience was seated again: as it was, the beginning of each encore was swallowed by the noise of talk, slammed chairs and audience departures.

Let’s hope that, after this long delayed New York recital debut, Mr. Zhang will return soon, for he has definitely something to show and does not sound like a typical “competition pianist”.

Roman Markowicz



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