Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Chamber Music San Francisco presented the fourth of the five concerts in its new Debut Series, which is providing first appearances in San Francisco of performers whose careers are just beginning to rise. Last night presented the 26-year-old Chinese pianist Haochen Zhang, winner of the Gold Medal at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition. The biographical statement on the program sheet claimed he “has captivated audiences in the United States, Europe, and Asia with a unique combination of musical sensitivity, fearless imagination and spectacular virtuosity.”
The program Zhang prepared for last night certain demanded that he deliver on all three prongs of this trident. The first half was devoted entirely to Robert Schumann, while the second half progressed through the nineteenth century into the twentieth with works by Franz Liszt, Leoš Janáček, and Sergei Prokofiev. Across all four of these composers, there was no questioning Zhang’s “spectacular virtuosity” as mere enthusiastic exaggeration on the part of his biographer. Sensitivity and imagination, on the other hand, were more difficult to find.
Signs were positive with the opening performance of Schumann’s Opus 15 cycle Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood). The quietude of the very first piece in the set “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen” (of foreign lands and peoples) demonstrated that Zhang knew how to frame this music’s simplicity with well-conceived dynamic contours and phrasing that could be inventive without being pretentiously idiosyncratic. However, once Schumann picked up the tempo, it seemed as if everything came down to how many notes could be delivered per second, particularly when reinforced with intense dynamic levels. If Schumann intention had been a “droll” (Schumann’s word choice in translation) account of simpler times, Zhang’s delivery of that account was anything but.
One has to wonder whether Opus 15 was a “strategic warm-up” for what followed, the daunting technical challenges of Schumann’s Opus 13, which he called Symphonic Studies. This is based on a sixteen-measure theme, which has one of the most demanding left-hand trills in the solo piano literature. The theme is followed by twelve études, nine of which are variations on the opening theme. Schumann had composed five additional variations but deleted them in preparing the score for publication. When Johannes Brahms prepared Opus 13 for the 1893 publication of Schumann’s collected works, he included those five variations as a supplement. Those variations were relatively ignored for about a century; but, over the last decade or so, several pianists have addressed the possibility of incorporating some, if not all, of them when performing Opus 13.
This imposes a somewhat unique demand on those who prepare program books. Where Opus 15 is concerned, there is clear value, if not necessity, in providing the descriptive titles of the thirteen pieces in the set. However, if we now live in a time when every pianist has the right to decide what to do with those additional variations (not only how many to include but also where, in the overall flow of the movements, they should be situated) in performing Opus 13, the audience deserves to know what decisions the performer decided to make. The absence of that information from last night’s program sheet was a disservice to Zhang, because, on the basis of personal memory (which is not as good as it used to be), it seemed as if he had chosen to insert two of those variations towards the end of the entire cycle.
On the other hand, there was not much sense of overall logic to Zhang’s reading of this piece. The technical demands of the score are certainly paramount, but Zhang tended to treat them as all that mattered. Fortunately, his one departure from this confining perspective took place during the final étude, a devilishly difficult march with repetitions of long spans of thematic material. In the midst of all of that sound and fury, establishing a final climax is no easy matter; but Zhang pulled off this trick with impressively coherent (if not particularly sensitive) logic.
The risk of playing Opus 13 before the intermission, however, is that anything that follows may end up sounding like an afterthought. Ironically, it was Liszt who suffered the most from this risk. Perhaps following the logic that one good set of études deserves another, Zhang began the second half of the program with two selections from the twelve Transcendental Études that Liszt published in 1852, the same year that Schumann published his revised edition of Opus 13. Zhang selected a “matched set” from the Liszt collection, complementing B-flat major, “Feux follets” (Wills o’ the Wisp), with B-flat minor, “Chasse-neige” (often given the verbose translation “impetuous wind which raises whirls of snow”). These are the fifth and twelfth études, respectively, in the set. The program sheet provided only the descriptive titles with no translation or explanation. Both études provided excellent platforms on which Zhang could display further facets of his virtuosity, but there was little evidence of any sensitivity to the music’s poetic connotations.
More problematic was his approach to Janáček’s In the Mists cycle of four short pieces identified only by tempo. The Wikipedia page for this composition asserts that the title refers to the “misty” key signatures of five and six flats. However, Janáček wrote this music at a dark time in his life. He had endured the death of his daughter and his inability to get any of his operas produced. It is not difficult to imagine some element of “lack of clarity” in both his mental outlook and his emotional disposition.
However, such connotations were clearly not part of Zhang’s mindset in approach this piece. If anything his priority seemed to be to make sure that every thematic element registered with the utmost clarity. There is no reason to dispute that goal, but in this case clarity seemed to be hammering out each of those elements. At the very least this made for a rhetoric that led the attentive listener to wonder while the noun “mists” was in the title.
In addition, those familiar with Janáček’s music have probably become used to the extent to which there is a prosodic rhetoric to his delivery of many, of not all, of this themes. This is as true in his piano music as it is in his operas and, for that matter, his chamber music. Whether or not it had even occurred to Zhang to consider the possibility of a “voice behind the music” is open to question; but his approach to execution definitely chose to disregard this approach. The result is that many might have regarded this as a performance of Janáček that never quite sounded like Janáček. (Janáček was also not well served by the program listing his dates as being the same as Liszt’s. The actual dates are 1854–1928; and In the Mists is definitely twentieth-century music!)
Zhang concluded his program with Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 83 (seventh) sonata in B-flat major. This is the second of his three “War” sonatas, all composed during the turmoil of the Second World War. Unlike Dmitri Shostakovich, Prokofiev himself experienced little of that turmoil, having been one of a large number of artists evacuated to the Caucasus. That may explain why one way of approaching Opus 83 is as a depiction of two “fronts,” contrasting the brutality of the “front line” with the distress on the home front. (Of course, in cities like Leningrad and Stalingrad, the home front turned out to be the front line. Shostakovich knew this from personal experience.)
In Opus 83 the home front is depicted through the relatively bittersweet sentimentality of the middle Andante caloroso movement, while the war wages within the two outer movements. Unfortunately, Zhang took the opening Allegro inquieto movement at such a breakneck pace that the martial rhetoric of the music could barely register, let alone the disquieting irony behind that rhetoric. In that respect, at least, his execution of the concluding Precipitato movement came closer to a military tone. However, Zhang seemed more interested in an endurance act of technical display, which certainly got the juices flowing on audience side but never quite seemed to capture the rhetorical stance behind the “war” label of this sonata.
Zhang followed his program with two encores. The first of these was Arcadi Volodos’ over-the-top (waaaaay over the top) transcription of the concluding (“Turkish”) rondo from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 331 piano sonata in A major. This could almost be taken as the cherry on top of the sundae of Prokofiev’s Precipitato, were it not for the fact that dessert was the last thing of Prokofiev’s mind while working on Opus 83! However, the quietude that began the evening returned with a performance of Brahms’ A major intermezzo from his Opus 118 collection of six pieces. Through this performance, Zhang made it clear that there is a still center at the core of his flamboyant virtuosity. At that center a sensitive account of intricately interleaved counterpoint counts for far more than sound and fury can ever muster.