What do we expect when a first-prize winner of the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition plays a recital? Displays of amazing virtuosity? A perceptive sense of musical style? Sophisticated programming with probing insights into familiar scores and rewarding discoveries of lesser-known works?
In his Saturday (Dec. 7) program for the La Jolla Music Society, Haochen Zhang, gold medalist of the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition, not only dazzled his audience with the bravura technical arsenal expected from a medalist, but invited his listeners into the interior emotional landscapes of works that others rush through solely to indulge their spectacle.
The 23-year-old Shanghai native opened and closed with serious doses of keyboard spectacle—Franz Liszt’s “Ballade No. 2” in B Minor and Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey”—which he dispatched with breath-taking aplomb at what would be considered foolhardy tempos in less accomplished hands. But in between these showpieces Zhang offered a vivid, cinematically realized traversal of Robert Schumann’s “Carnaval,” a precocious analysis of Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109, and four translucent realizations from Claude Debussy’s First Book of “Preludes.”
Played literally from the page, Schumann’s piano music can appear square, even simplistic. But Zhang pointedly insinuated the composer’s edgy, impetuous—even unstable—qualities at every turn in “Carnaval,” threatening to drop the reveler’s smiling party mask to reveal the troubled countenace behind it. Yet for his immaculate attention to detail in each miniature, he did not sacrifice the urgency that propels Schumann’s kaleidoscopic crowd scene to its brilliant conclusion.
From the first time I heard the La Jolla Music Society’s Steinway, I was put off by its big, brassy, aggressive timbre, but Zhang reined in these characteristics with apparent ease and painted his Debussy Preludes with a wide palette of subtle shades and iridescent hues. He stressed the pointillism of the familiar “Footsteps in the Snow” and was not afraid to turn on a bit of drama in the climatic moments of the otherwise misty washes of “The Sunken Cathedral.”[php snippet=1]
The unorthodox qualities Beethoven’s three final Piano Sonatas offer extensive possibilities for indulgent excess, but I found Zhang’s deconstruction of the E Major Sonata, Op. 109, to be both spare, structurally clarifying, and emotionally rich. But I was sorry to have missed hearing his take on the A-flat Major Sonata, Op. 110, with its massive fugue, the Sonata he had originally programmed for La Jolla.
Although Saturday’s audience was light for a serious piano recital, those present responded ardently to this young artist. Lang Lang and Yuja Wang beware—this youngster is breathing down your necks.