Chamber music and recital

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.

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Orchestral music

HK Phil/Yuja Wang: Mozart, Beethoven

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.

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