At age seventeen, Haochen Zhang was the youngest winner of the 2007 China International Piano Competition. At nineteen, he took one of three Gold Medals at the thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He then launched his career, giving more than sixty performances during the year. Now twenty, the Chinese-born pianist took the stage at Jordan Hall on Friday evening December 3, his Boston debut recital presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.
Early indicators of Zhang’s artistry could be observed in his opening bow. His every move was practiced. He created distance between his audience and himself. Once seated, he wiped the keys with a white handkerchief, then, pausing, assessed and adjusted the height of the bench. (Did anybody notice all the fingerprints left on the Steinway’s ebony?) After remaining completely still for several moments, he began playing, placing nearly all of the action in his hands. Throughout his recital, the Van Cliburn Gold Medalist showed little body movement or facial expression. He has, in his hands, a commanding technique that is not only high-speed and of near perfect accuracy but extraordinary powerful and seemingly unlimited even for the most treacherously difficult passages. His is an immense control, the envy of anyone who has ever played the piano. The softest of touches he could also produce at will. Zhang is as disciplined a soloist as you will encounter. Is it youth? Could it be a contemporary concept of performance? Could mentoring have helped? The program notes tell of his ongoing studies with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find the other side of Zhang, his personality; and, except for flashes of brilliance, nearly all of his playing of Chopin, Brahms and Ginastera was, for me, cold. One wonders if it might just have been an off night for this emerging artist. One of the key reasons for there being these questions centers on dynamics, or more simply, volume. In a manner of speaking, Zhang raised the volume by a notch or two. The written dynamic marking of f, forte, in the first measure of Piano Sonata No. 1, Opus 22 by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera was turned up to ff, fortissimo. Similarly, Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Opus 52, which should have begun softly — p is written in the opening bar — in Zhang’s performance was something closer to forte.
It wasn’t as though this made his performances in any way raucous. As loudly as Zhang played in the Ginastera sonata, clarity of sound was never lost. The biggest loss resulting from the ramped-up output came with the shaping of a whole piece or movement. Climaxes did not materialize. Drives to cadences buckled under the enormous volume. For instance, toward the close of Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Opus 38, a driving Agitato culminates with surprising harmony. Instead of a resolving harmony that you would expect to bring closure, this “deceptive cadence,” as it is often called, and that leaves the listener hanging up in the air, also did not materialize. The ensuing final cadence to be executed at a very soft level as if to take the feet right out from underneath you suffered from a lack of real contrast. Thus, the intended effect was lost.
Following the four Ballades came Brahms’ Klavierstücke, Opus 118, six pieces in all. The more “classical” Brahms seemed to be a better match for Zhang’s prodigious hands.
It was a fairly good turnout at Jordan for a newcomer on the scene. All in the audience had to be amazed by Zhang’s unbelievable virtuosity throughout the Ginastera. For an encore, young Zhang chose Robert Schumann’s evergreen, Träumerai. His choice was as perfect as the entire programming.