Monday, 25 July 2011

ZHANG HAOCHEN Piano Recital / Review

SCO Singapore Conference Hall
Sunday (24 July 2011)

This review was publishe in The Straits Times on 26 July 2011 with the title "Modest Zhang oozes music".

It was not difficult to understand how Zhang Haochen, who at the age of 19, became the first Chinese pianist to win the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009. His debut solo recital in Singapore reveals a confident young man oozing music from every pore, backed by a maturity beyond his tender years.

The perfect antithesis and antidote to the excesses of Lang Lang, Zhang is modest, almost humble and without airs or affectation. His body language also shows that music comes first, and he is merely a servant of the great composers, not the other way around.

Immediately felt was the gorgeous and pearly piano tone he drew from Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). Each of the thirteen “easy” pieces was given a life of its own, yet coalescing as a whole with an innocence and simplicity that was disarming.

When it came to capturing thunder, there was ample opportunity in Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (Op.57) where bare knuckles and fists drew blood. Yet he was the epitome of refinement in the central theme and variations. This encompassing of extremes was what made Zhang’s view of Beethoven so vital and relevant.

The same approach also defined Liszt’s Second Ballade in B minor, where “tragedies of public import” were laid bare with a laser-like precision and clarity, and requisite technique to match. He performed the alternative version with hammered chords in place of right hand scales in the climax, which further added to the drama.

Virtuosity without sensitivity is empty bluster, and Zhang’s variegated touch was put to the test in three Debussy Préludes. Rarely have mystical half-lights and tints come through better in Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and Scents Mingle in the Evening Air) or La cathedrale engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral). A mastery of pedalling and feather-light caresses were the secret.

The sparing use of pedal and percussive approach made Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata sound the bitter and violent essay that it is. Like the Appassionata before it, his probing and prodding brought out the work’s true character. And when one thought his entry into the toccata-like finale was just too fast, he went for broke and delivered the coup de grace.

Two encores, a Chopin nocturne (C# minor, Op.posth.) and Wang Jianzhong’s Hundred Birds Paying Respect to the Phoenix (Bai Niao Chao Feng), brought down the house. Zhang’s return here will be keenly anticipated.

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