Haochen Zhang: Brahms, Liszt, Janáček and Schumann
Haochen Zhang first came to my attention through an excellent selection of live performances from the 2009 International Van Cliburn Competition, where Zhang shared the Gold Medal victory with Nobuyuki Tsujii. Judging from his first studio release for BIS, Zhang has evidently been honing and fine tuning his artistry, arguably to a fault.
It’s fashionable for young pianists to over-interpret Schumann’s Kinderszenen in quest of Argerichisms or Horowitzisms. Zhang, however, will have none of that, yet his aim for lightness, transparency and directness yields poetic results. How much more interesting and sophisticated the ubiquitous ‘Traümerei’ sounds without overwrought accents and contrived pedal effects, and when is the last time you heard such a disarmingly lilting ‘Ritter vom Steckenpferd’? Schumann’s hobby horse claims its rightful place after too many bucking broncos hogging the catalogue.
In contrast to the rhetorical heft and dramatic trajectory served up by Claudio Arrau, Zhang views Liszt’s B minor Ballade more as a free-flowing fantasy. One can argue, though, that the broken octaves sacrifice their inherent agitato urgency for surface suavity, and that Zhang races through each reiteration of the major-key Allegretto theme as if he were embarrassed by its sentiment. With the final peroration, Zhang opts for Liszt’s rarely performed ossia alternative text consisting of booming chords, as opposed to the rippling ascending scales that nearly everyone else plays: he ploughs through those chords, sidestepping the composer’s grandioso directive.
The rounded edges and polished passagework characterising Zhang’s Janáček are pianistically impressive, yet he glides over the music’s stark aura and speech-like syntax. Just compare Zhang’s relatively glib first movement’s unison phrases to the shapely rhythmic inflections of Firkušný,Moravec or Schiff, and you’ll understand what’s missing.
Zhang handles Brahms’s E flat Intermezzo with kid gloves and basically underplays, while smoothing out the cross-rhythmic phrase groupings. The B flat minor is similarly misty-eyed, texturally mushy – indeed overpedalled at times, with almost none of the firmly etched counterpoint you hear from Rubinstein and Kempff. Zhang’s broadly paced C sharp minor is fuller in body, grander in design and better sustained all round; a convincing alternative to the brisker, terser, more classically orientated readings that I generally prefer. The fine recorded sound registers with even more lifelike resonance via SACD multichannel playback. All told, an uneven recital, capped by a winning Kinderszenen.