Haochen Zhang recital

Date: December 12, 2015
Location: Grand Hall, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre, The University of Hong Kong.

Janáček – From the Street
Schumann – Kreisleriana Op. 16
Beethoven – Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, Les adieux
Scriabin – Poèmes, Op. 69 No. 1 & 2, 32 No. 1
Ginastera – Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 22

ENCORES

Mozart – Rondo alla turca (arr. Volodos)
Brahms – Intermezzo No. 2 in A major

Haochen Zhang (piano)

One would assume that Haochen Zhang, who studied under Gary Graffman at Curtis, would perform with the sort of exuberant showmanship and unrestrained virtuosity that often define the performing style of Graffman’s other two star pupils from China, Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. That would have been fine, to be sure, as plenty of people are willing and happy to buy tickets to witness the perfect execution of that performing style. In this winter evening at HKU, Zhang offered a similar stomping execution, and then some. There were moments when Zhang flashed with more superficial thrills than musical sensibility, and there were other moments when tempo was modified more for frivolous excitement than for phrasal cohesion. For the better part of the evening, however, Zhang seemed singularly focused on slowly and tastefully unveiling each composer’s music, with audible evidence where he deferred to each composer’s dynamic and tempo signatures, especially in Kreisleriana and Les adieux. With Kreisleriana, Zhang collated various passages, each depicting a varying personality of Schumann’s subject matter (that would be Hoffmann’s Kreisler), with a kaleidoscopic alteration of texture. In Les adieux, Zhang provided a compelling contrast between the lyrical Abwesenheit and the more sonorous Das Wiedersehen. Whereas Lang and Wang often seem to treat the piano as an interpretive intermediary, Zhang’s approach to the keyboard this evening seemed more symbiotic, as if there is equal significance, and substance, between a willing pianist and a willing instrument. Here, the Steinway & Sons concert grand produced a gorgeous sound, with crisp tones at the upper registers and a steely support at the lower registers. Curiously, the middle sections got muffled up, especially on pedals in the Janáček. One would assume that to be an odd characteristic of the instrument. On more attentive listening, this peculiarity could (possibly?) be explained by Zhang’s tendency to overlap his transiting chords under pedal, which created a momentary whiff of cloudiness which then led to a muffling sensation. This overlap would create an incredible audible effect in dreamy music, but the non-linearity could irritate some. Elsewhere, the Beethoven could have sounded less like Rachmaninoff and more like, let’s say, Beethoven, but overall, Zhang’s meticulous and analytical effort paid off with a desirably practical amount of sincerity and authenticity. In the Ginastera, Zhang curtailed some of that analytical rendition and permeated the air with a more relaxed spontaneity. The choices for his three encores: Rondo alla turca a la Volodos, Brahms’ Intermezzo No. 2 in A major and a short Mozart sonata segment revealed not nearly as much technical notoriety as a strategy and desire to earn a reputation as a pianist with, more than just showmanship and virtuosity, a varied and versatile repertoire.

HK Phil/Yuja Wang

Date: June 13, 2015
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 9
Beethoven – Symphony No. 3

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jaap van Zweden (conductor)

Yuja Wang, who has cultivated an image of a fiery pianist conquering with ease every finger-breaking Russian piece available to mankind, is not known to be an interpreter of Mozart. On this occasion, she showed why she was not: her playing was somewhat distanced from the composition, and her reliance on the printed score in front of her, no matter how infrequently she referred to it, seemed to hinder her interpretation of the music. Conductor Jaap van Zweden indulged her further with the luxury of the occasional ritardando that could irritate Mozartean purists. Climactic passages came off sounding too contemporary and edgy for Mozart’s time. The ebb and flow of Mozart’s cadences reminded us more of Schubert’s wandering journey to death, or of the hypnotic flow of Brahms’ love poetry, than of the mature, steady classicism that a mid-career Mozart was supposed to offer. That said, Alfred Einstein would have agreed that this particular Mozart, with its impetuous and glorious tendencies, was far ahead of its time. Perhaps that was what Wang was going after here, but the end product, if not also the manner in which the output was produced, was rather unconvincing. Wang’s two encores – Horowitz’s Carmen variations and her variation of Rondo alla turca – were memorable in the sense that she was unabashedly relentless in showing off her fingering skills and not much else. When tempo seemed bottlenecked by impossible fingering, her finger would flash faster, with even more fiery brilliance. Between plenty of flashy displays of technique and speed, there was very little musicality to speak of. After intermission was Beethoven Third, the piece that Einstein found etymologically comparable to Mozart’s concerto. The orchestra’s intonation this evening was accurate and focused, and the musicians seemed to genuinely enjoy making music together. The brass section could sound a little too brash, or the strings a little too golden (perhaps too much Wagner recently?), but the output’s overall focus and balance must be commended with no reservation, especially as compared with the Philharmonic merely a few years ago. That said, van Zweden’s approach to Eroica failed to live up to heightened expectations. Narrative power is required of the piece which is essentially a totemic embodiment of Beethoven’s idealistic hero. Van Zweden’s execution this evening seemed to favor transient dramatic brilliance over narrative dramaturgy. The result was an Eroica beaming with occasional brilliance but lacking an interpretative voice, in much the same way that Wang’s concerto performance occurred with sparks but without having much to say.

Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra

Date: February 18, 2014
Location: Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Hong Kong.

The 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival swung to a fantastic start with help by the Cologne musicians and maestro Markus Stenz. The evening was headlined by Sabine Meyer, who mechanized a rather bland Mozart clarinet concerto K.622. Meyer’s performance was not particularly objectionable, but neither was it particularly memorable. After the interval, the 100-strong Cologne wolf-pack filled the stage (by my count, five dozen strings, three dozen winds, six percussions, two harps and two keyboards) to deliver a jaw-dropping rendition of Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Another dozen or so wind players were offstage to perform the short but juicy hunter motif.

While the piece has subtle references to Strauss’ own Der Rosenkavalier and Wagner’s Parsifal, the symphony’s chief driving force is its programme: in twenty-two sections, the piece describes ascent to and descent from the Alpine peak. Along the way are thickets of rich forests, glaciers, brooks, mists and a gigantic storm. Doing homework prior to the concert has its rewards: while some music would seem like cinematic music (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the rest points to intricate details about nature: when woodwinds glide through their arpeggios, one could sense the motion of a virginal spring brook meandering away from the Alpine glacier. When brass starts to pounce, a raving storm is unmistakably at hand. Even without prior knowledge of Strauss’ programmatic focus, much enjoyment could be had by watching the musicians work through passages of glorious music. Watching the percussionist accelerating his arms to ratchet the wind machine, during the symphony’s storm section, was singularly the most dramatic (and wild!) experience one could enjoy inside an enclosed concert hall. Warm brass basked cuddly warmth and a yolky hue onto the meadows of lush strings. Cologne’s overall playing painted a sprawling Alpine dreamscape where movements evolved naturally, not hurried. Equally, Stenz was the consummate leader who unified the sound from over a hundred musicians into coherent scenes with precision and detail.

With the Strauss, nothing was short of superlative. But two encores that followed were a revelation altogether: the Vorspiel to Act III of Lohengrin, followed by a voice-less Walkürenritt in Die Walküre. Both beamed with regal luxury and breathed with furious detail – so much so that no evidence of exhaustion due to one hour of Strauss playing was left to trace. (Then again, a serious opera orchestra like Cologne would have gone through more than one hour (or two!) of intense Wagnerian grind by the time these two Act III gems are played: see my Cologne Ring review here.) Their playing was so fresh and detailed that it would not be entirely inappropriate to call it a master-class of Wagnerian musicianship. The Hong Kong Philharmonic shall take note. It was nevertheless a pity that the Cultural Centre’s main organ, a Rieger Orgelbau, was unused in the Strauss; a smaller and less impressive one on stage was used instead, allegedly because the Rieger could not be tuned appropriately to Cologne’s slightly higher concert pitch.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong.

Cologne Orchestra in Hong Kong, with Markus Stenz. (Copyright: Cologne Guerzenich Orchestra)

Mozart Requiem

Date: September 2, 2012
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Die Konzertisten
City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong
Stephen Layton, conductor

English conductor Stephen Layton has amassed an eclectic collection of commercial recordings over the years. His 2001 recording of Britten’s choral music, for which Layton received a Gramophone Award, included a diverse mix of songs, hymns and offerings. This evening’s programming of countrapuntal music served a similar plate of mixed choral goodies, including a motet (Bach’s Singet dem Herrn), a cantata (Jauchzet Gott, also by Bach), as well as Mozart Requiem. Layton conducted Die Konzertisten, a Hong Kong-based amateur chamber choir, and the City Chamber Orchestra, which comprised of local professional musicians. Die Konzertisten as a corpus was rhythmically alive and phrasally in unison, thanks much to Layton’s crisp and resolute conducting. The integrity of countrapuntal tonality would occasionally expose unattractive crevices in passages of quick crescendos, especially in the motet, but otherwise the group had an applaudable outing. Louise Kwong, a talented up-and-coming soprano, sang both soprano parts in Bach’s cantata and Requiem. In the fast aria section of the cantata, Kwong seemed uncomfortable with some of the long phrasings, and exhibited aspiration problems on numerous occasions. In the slower recitativo and second aria sections, her lyrical voice flourished, projecting an ample amount of tonal beauty. Her singing was generally desirable, but by rarely looking away from her handheld score, she offered insufficient emotive connection to the audience. That was especially evident at the end of Gott when she sang “Drauf singen wir zur Stund: Amen, wir werden es erlangen / To this we sing here now: Amen, we shall achieve it” mostly while staring at the score. Melody Sze, the mezzo in Requiem, traversed with meticulous detailing and care, so much so that she sounded as if she had to cautiously suppress an outpouring of her vocal reservoir to hold vocal balance. Christopher Leung’s tenor was groomed and well voiced. Alan Tsang offered a lyrical high baritone that was highly polished yet properly fervent, but his lower registers found very little support and were often drowned out by the orchestra, especially in his solo in Tuba mirum.