Hao Rao opened the 2023 concert series of the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts to a packed Williams Hall this Thursday, excelling in his all-Chopin recital, comprising not only all four ballades, a huge undertaking in itself, but also other pianistic fireworks like the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise and the Heroic Polonaise.
A finalist in the 2021 Chopin International Piano Competition, the 19-year-old old already plays with confidence and mastery. Jan Popis, special commentator of the Chopin Competition wrote, “The 17-year-old Chinese boy has been manifesting his naturally charming talent since his first round. His playing is poetic, his legato is beautiful like a song, with a sound full of colors. He’s a great talent.”
Rao opened with the iconic Barcarolle, a late work of Chopin’s that borders on the impressionistic with its rocking hypnotic left hand accompaniment that conjures up images of water lapping against canals amid gondoliers. Rao’s playing is sensitive and clear, with a sparing use of rubato, then an oh-so-beautifully powerful and surprising climax, ebbing gradually away into peaceful beauty.
The four Opus 30 Mazurkas, mostly in minor keys, are wistful and nostalgic. They look deceptively easy on the page, but are in fact among Chopin’s most challenging works, giving great freedom to the performer. The magic lies in their nearly improvisational quality. None of the rubatos, softer repeats, and stressed notes so characteristic of the mazurka are noted in the scores, demanding much from a pianist’s imagination and creativity.
He ended the first half with the showy Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise, a piece custom-made for his unique blend of breakneck speed, incredible accuracy and virtuosity, eliciting a chorus of bravos. The many Gs of acceleration, deceleration, and hairpin turns reminded us of roller coasters, which the young artists cited as a non-musical interest, along with “opera, ballet, pop culture, gourmet, and singing.”
Much has been written about the individual inspirations for Chopin’s four Ballades. Each is unique, but what they have in common is the vast variety in sentiment, at one moment Chopin at his most sparkly, while measures later plummeting into depths of despair. Sweetness and innocence give way to tempestuous turmoil.
Chopin confessed to Schumann about the Ballade No.1 that “it is my dearest work.” We tend to forget how very young Chopin was when he composed it: all of 21 years. Apt for the piece to be played by another enfant prodige. The inspiration for this ballade is undoubtedly the 1831 Battle of Warsaw, a seminal event. A recurrent, waltz-like theme recurs, first sounds as a nostalgic recollection—a young Chopin at home in Poland. It returns in a minor key, perhaps suggesting Chopin contemplating his childhood home in ruins, his family dispersed. Then the theme comes back in large chords, triumphantly, perhaps an envisioned reunion in a victorious Poland with his family. The coda is especially difficult, and Rao played it at a speed that seemed impossible to maintain, but he triumphed.
Rao seemed at ease, relaxed at the keyboard, his fingers flying seemingly without effort and landing on the right notes flawlessly, often his hands traveling too fast to be seen. His youthful exuberance and joy of this journey proved irresistible.
Rao’s astonishing take on the well-known Heroic Polonaise catapulted us all to a rousing close.
Hao Rao rewarded the crowd with two encores: the sweet and playful Chopin Waltz, Opus 34 No. 3 and then the Horowitz’s Carmen Fantasy, one final display of jaw-dropping mastery.
Sibylle Barrasso is a long-time piano student of Robert Poli. She has played in piano competitions in Pickman Hall and Chicago, is on the board of directors of the Boston Piano Amateurs Association and has played for audiences in the Boston Symphony Cafe since 2010.