Friday, 22 July 2011

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2011)

13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
Harmonia Mundi 907506 / *****

How does a young up-and-coming pianist promote himself? Win a major piano competition and have a CD recorded as a calling card. That was exactly what 19-year-old Zhang Haochen did in 2009, sharing 1st prize with the blind Japanese Nobuyuki Tsujii at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. At the time, it was thought that Zhang, then a student, was too young to accept the responsibilities of a winner. However, listening to these “live” competition performances, the maturity and sheer adroitness of the playing suggest otherwise.

There are no edits, and hardly a note is dropped for Stravinsky’s fearsome Three Movements from Petrushka, a typical competition showpiece. In Chopin’s 24 Préludes (Op.28), the magisterial sweep achieved is revelatory, and each individual gem is shaded with polish and finesse. Mason Bates’ blues-inflected White Lies For Lomax, commissioned by the Competition, reveals Zhang’s sympathy for jazz idioms. Closing with Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody, another barnstorming warhorse is served up with stunning accuracy. Fans of Lang Lang and Wang Yuja will not want to pass up on witnessing this major talent in person.

ZHANG HAOCHEN with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra
22 & 23 July 2011, Singapore Conference Hall, 8 pm
24 July 2011, Singapore Conference Hall, 5 pm
Tickets available at SISTIC

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic / Vasily Petrenko
Deutsche Grammophon 477 8777 / ****1/2

The Violin Concerto by the American composer Jennifer Higdon (born 1962) was dedicated to Hilary Hahn, and sounds to be a durable 21st century virtuoso vehicle. Its two longer slow movements followed by a brief but furious finale superficially resemble the famous concerto of Samuel Barber. Just like Barber, Higdon’s is an accessibly tonal score but not without its share of discords and barbs, residing mostly in the opening movement. The second movement is a long-breathed chaconne that has that expansive feel that has come to define much of American music, followed by an impressive display of fireworks to close.

Hahn’s quicksilver technique and sound projection is peerless, which will win this substantial new work many new friends. Its coupling, the extremely popular Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, however sounds almost subdued by comparison. Having outgrown her child prodigy years, Hahn’s restrained approach provides a more sober look at a familiar favourite. One just wishes for a little more youthful dash to complement her maturity.

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