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Palm Beach Daily News
By Greg Stephanich
As the gold medalist in the most recent Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Haochen Zhang could be forgiven if he wanted to mount an entire concert of showy crowd-pleasers.
But what made this remarkable 21-year-old Chinese-born pianist’s recital Thursday night at the Rinker Playhouse so exciting was its intellectuality and range. There was something about Zhang’s love of programming contrast and his willingness to take interpretive risks that reminded me of Vladimir Horowitz, and perhaps it’s along that path that he will mark out his own.
That remains to be seen, but what already can be said is that he is a pianist with tremendous technical equipment and an unusually mature outlook. Zhang opened his recital before a very large house at the Rinker with a quartet of Chopin mazurkas, including the well-known mazurka in A minor (Op. 17, No. 4). He played it with wistful freedom, and perfectly executed ornamentation, the first clear sign of Zhang’s exceptional control of his hands and fingers.
Zhang made much of the back-and-forth setup of the C major mazurka (Op. 24, No. 2) that came next, and made its ending beautifully humorous, while the following mazurka in A-flat (Op. 59, No. 2) had a serene touch of the nocturne about it. The F-sharp minor mazurka (Op. 59, No. 3) that closed the set had fire and a charmingly playful middle section.
Beethoven’s final piano sonata (No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111), which like most of his late works (except the Ninth Symphony) takes listeners into recondite realms, came next. This is a tough piece to get across, but Zhang did it well. He ripped into the appoggiaturas of the huge opening theme, and gave its fitful follow-ups crisp rhythm; to the fugal passages he offered an air of thoughtful austerity.
The second movement was also quite severe, though Zhang moderated this with a judicious use of dynamic contrasts. Still, in the first big syncopated variation he was less explosive than he might have been, which made the music less bizarre and kept its single line of dramatic argument more apparent.
The second half opened with the Ballade No. 2 in B minor of Liszt, which has the same kind of violence-and-contemplation mix of the Beethoven second movement, though here the audience got a taste of Zhang as a Lisztian, helped along by his having discarded the jacket and cufflinks he wore in the first half. The bravura passages of the Liszt were played superbly, with all the abandon and athleticism the music requires.
Following that came some of Zhang’s finest playing in four pieces from the first book of Claude Debussy’s two books of Preludes. Des pas sur la niege (Footprints in the Snow) was played with a heartbreakingly sad intimacy, its harmonies and melodies barely rising above a whisper. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and Perfumes Mingle in the Night Air) was much the same, with a delicately judged ending.
In Les collines d’Anacapri (The Anacapri Hills), Zhang brought out its sparkling color with digital precision and suddenness, as though he were pulling a bright paisley scarf from the bottom of a table stacked with whites and grays. And La cathedrale engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral) was magical; the way he brought the theme back at the very end, over the deep rumbling bass (pedaled to perfection), put another layer of glass over the church under the sea, making it even harder to make out. This was a superb Debussy set, in which Zhang masterfully helped his audience enter the composer’s special sound world.
The recital closed with Islamey, a potboiler by the Russian Mili Balakirev, and a piece beloved by older generations of pianists. It’s a tour de force of Lisztian flash, and it brought the crowd roaring to its feet as Zhang himself leaped off the bench as he played the last chord.
As an encore, Zhang provided another reminder of Horowitz by playing the Traumerei of Schumann, a miniature from Kinderszenen (Op. 15). He immediately restored the hall to rapt attention for his sensitive, tender, and quite free reading of this classic miniature.