TCHAIKOVSKY; PROKOFIEV Piano Concertos (Haochen Zhang)
This is not an obvious concerto coupling; but in fact there are at least three others, two of them quite recent: Rana and Pappano (Warner Classics, 12/15), Gerstein and Gaffigan (Myrios, 2/15); from the past, there is Joselson and Ormandy (Sony). Even so, do we really need another Tchaikovsky First Concerto on disc with no fewer than 447 available on different current CDs? Well, the answer in this instance is an enthusiastic ‘yes’.
Haochen Zhang won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn a decade ago. He has yet to make it as a headliner internationally but listening to his way with this old warhorse left me in no doubt that here is an artist of rare talent. Listen to the way he handles the opening pages – those chords above the stave on the third beat with their top F naturals, E flats and A flats ring out emphatically, those that follow are extravagantly arpeggiated, and his phrasing of the solo and cadenza before the return of the opening theme is not just (the usual) empty bravura but thoughtfully shaped as though part of a conversation. In short, Zhang tells the introduction in such a way that you cannot wait to hear the rest of the story. Even if you instinctively shy away from yet another Tchaikovsky First, I think this performance will come as a refreshing surprise. The fast passagework in the central movement and the finale is thrillingly light and swift, and it is only a slight lack of weight in the final pages that, for me, falls short.
The Prokofiev, which precedes it, will do nothing to lessen the growing popularity of this extraordinary work. Again, it is Zhang’s articulation and phrasing, precision and power that merit the highest praise. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Dimo Slobodeniouk provide spirited support and offer formidable competition even to the incredible Yuja Wang/Gustavo Dudamel live performance in Caracas (DG, 2/14) – just listen to the way Zhang and Slobodeniouk present the peroration of the first movement. Spine-tingling. And all credit to BIS producer Marion Schwebel and engineer Christian Starke for the vivid sound picture. Like many of BIS’s recent releases, the disc’s sleeve is made of material from sustainable forest management, soy ink, eco-friendly glue and water-based varnish, and is easy to recycle: no plastic is used. Other labels take note. Another tick. In fact, full marks all round.