As our country gradually returns to something approaching normalcy after two years of pandemic, one has more opportunities to celebrate by attending public events that would have been unthinkable mere months ago. However, this listener had still more reason to celebrate on Saturday when the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts presented pianist Haochen Zhang at Jordan Hall. Haochen launched his international career after receiving the gold medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and subsequently was awarded the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2017. The reason for the latter award, in particular, was continuously apparent: this is an artist whose preternatural virtuosity ever serves as a means to an end, that of creating vivid, expressive, colorful musical ideas. Exploring the works of only two composers on this occasion, the pianist created an impressively wide range of moods, colors, and sonorities.
Haochen opened with the three pieces of Debussy’s Images, Book 2; though these are not as rarefied as the works of his last years, they undeniably mark an advance over his earlier piano music. Cloches à travers les feuilles (Bells Through the Leaves) evoked various sounds: church bells, rustling leaves, volatile breezes ranging from zephyrs to gusts, etc. The artist skillfully delineated multiple layers of texture, not least by differentiating Debussy’s frequent cross-rhythms as well as subtly highlighting melodies. Especially notable was the passage marked by Debussy “as in an iridescent mist”: Haochen created the composer’s desired effect of playing the piano seemingly “without hammers.” In Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (And the moon sets over the temple that was) he conjured both old and new—the parallel intervals evoking medieval plainchant but alternating with the more advanced harmonies of 1907. Here too Haochen’s delineation of various textures paid dividends, as did his marvelously nuanced dynamics. His sound encompassed multiple dimensions on a spectrum of intimately close to barely-audible distant. If the first of the set was otherworldly and the second mystical, the final piece sparkled with brilliant energy. Poissons d’or (Goldfish) took its inspiration from a Japanese lacquer panel that hung in Debussy’s study. Haochen’s brilliant, buoyant execution placed the work among the most distinguished water-inspired pieces of both Debussy and Ravel, with shimmering ripples of the water and the unpredictable gyrations of goldfish swimming. Rapid chords in dotted rhythm added extroversion, even playfulness. The nearly non-stop scintillating energy of this portrait in sound only relaxed at the final conclusion in the brilliant key of F-sharp major.
The remainder of the recital program consisted of one of the supreme challenges in the piano literature, Liszt’s 12 Études d’exécution transcendante (Studies of Transcendent Execution). These studies, which exist in three versions from 1826 (when Liszt was 15!), 1838, and 1852, formed such an important revolution in piano technique that it is not difficult to forget that they offer comparable musical challenges—and rewards for those few able to master them. Haochen chose, like most pianists, to essay the final version (S. 139), and his triumph was in putting his astounding virtuosity at the service of consistently compelling music-making. One seldom hears the full set in live performance—only performers of unusual assurance would likely consider programming it—but the rewards of hearing it complete are considerable: though the études share an extremely high level of technical difficulty, their entirely distinct personalities make for fascinating listening when heard together, played by a master pianist.
The opening “Preludio” juxtaposed chromatic passagework with grand arpeggios and the heroic with delectable delicacy, as a performer might “try out” a new piano. The second, in A minor and one of two without a name, is a study in violent contrasts: hammered chords with the hands now far apart, now interlocked, one moment raging, the next capricious. Amidst the relentless technical display, Haochen kept the melody clear, sharing it between his hands in the middle of the texture. “Paysage” (Landscape) gave us a needed moment of relaxation, an affectionate song of caressing phrases. Liszt placed his emphasis here on harmonic exploration rather than technical wizardry; a highlight was a descending sequence of key changes. Our performer conveyed a sense of wonder at these shifting landscapes and spun out a beautiful melody throughout.
Among the most famous—and demanding—études is the fourth, “Mazeppa”, named for a Polish page of the 17th century who, according to legend, is tied naked to a wild horse, enduring untold agonies until the horse, after galloping for three days, finally dies from exhaustion in Ukraine and the page emerges, redeemed, as a leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks (a seemingly topical theme for today’s news, by serendipity). The composer was so enamored of Victor Hugo’s poem retelling the legend that he based this étude on it, revised his work in 1838 and 1840, and ultimately orchestrated it in 1850. Haochen told a harrowing tale of pain and horror but also defiance of death (the playing required is indeed “death-defying”) and finally triumph. In a central section he gave us rest and beauty—transforming the stormy D minor first theme into something of a love song—but quite soon it was engulfed in superheated rhetoric again. The recapitulation of the opening theme brought still another variation on it and finally led to a hair-raising chordal coda in the triumphant major. As Haochen held the final triple-forte chord, the piano seemed to roar in a manner unique in my experience. Though sharing fearsome technical demands with “Mazeppa”, the fifth étude, “Feux-follets” (Will-o’-the wisp) was a stark contrast to its predecessor, impressing with its clarity and mercurial delicacy amid lightning-fast chromatic figurations. Though the work has been described as “angelic to hear and devilish to play”, the performer tossed it off bewitchingly. In another great change, “Vision” begins portentously in the low registers of the piano with a repeating fragment of the Dies irae. Haochen created an ominous atmosphere initially but as Liszt moved into the instrument’s higher ranges and ever more extravagant display, the performer took us with assurance into the light and the ecstasy of the tonic major.
Liszt likely took spiritual inspiration for the seventh study, “Eroica”, from Beethoven’s symphony of the same name, though there is little musical resemblance to the earlier work. Haochen’s grandiose introduction built up anticipation, though Liszt’s surprisingly simple march theme did little to reward it at first. Soon enough, however, it began to gain power and excitement, culminating in a jaw-dropping combination of double-octaves and chords at the climax and ending as heroically as it began. Drawing on a common theme of old German ballads and folk-tales, “Wilde Jagd” (Wild Hunt) portrays ghostly riders hunting human souls, thus prefiguring César Franck’s Le chasseur maudit and a central episode of Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. Haochen fashioned a dialogue between the galloping dotted-rhythm figure of the chase and the sustained lyrical second melody, uniting virtuosity and beauty. The following study, Ricordanza (Remembrance), a most affecting nocturne, is the height of Romanticism in every sense. Our pianist gave us gently seductive utterances then passionate declarations, using nuanced, skillful rubatos and his sovereign control of dynamics. Hearing a performance like this, one can hardly doubt the accounts of ladies swooning at Liszt’s own playing.
The tenth study is the other without an appellation which seems fitting for a proto-minimalist creation that often relies on snippets of melody alternating with flashing flurries of chords. However, where Liszt offered something of a sustained tune, Haochen made the most of the opportunity, giving it a tasteful spotlight and playing in the grand manner. As before, he demonstrated a stunning ability to execute even the most massive chords anywhere on the dynamic spectrum from ppp to fff, with delicacy or seismic power. Harmonies du soir (Evening Harmonies) evoked a lovely evening with liberal use of harp effects and sounds of bells. Unlike Ricordanza, what seemed to begin as a gentle nocturne grew to a colossal climax of thundering chords and double-octaves, but eventually subsided gradually to a glowing serenity at the conclusion. Liszt’s concluding étude, Chasse-neige (Blizzard), portrays the course of a great winter storm, beginning with very light tremolos that evoke feathery snowfall at the start. Very gradually Haochen increased the intensity and power of the blizzard, highlighting the canon that develops between the right and left hands (perhaps evoking the chasse—one hand “chasing” the other). Chromatic runs gusting up and down in the left hand increased the wind chill factor until right hand joined left in octave runs, leading to a final nearly superhuman climax in contrary-motion double-octaves and chords that illustrated a staggering snowfall propelled by high winds. As storms inevitably spend their fury, our performer gave us a gradual abatement, with the chromatic left-hand gusts recurring but now losing intensity. The final chords illustrated a storm not yet dissipated but now distant.
In 2022 we have a sizable number of pianists with seemingly preternatural techniques and good musical instincts, but Haochen Zhang has something more: a rare gift for painting scenes in music, creating visions and telling stories. His technique is likely second to none, but his true distinction is his ability to use it in communicating his extra-musical ideas to listeners. May he prosper, and may Boston audiences hear him again soon.