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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor Op. 16 [31:44]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1841-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor Op. 23 [33:55]
Haochen Zhang (piano)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Dima Slobodeniouk
rec. 2018, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
BIS BIS2381 SACD [66:29]

Haochen Zhang first came to international attention in 2009 when he won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Like his compatriots Lang Lang and Yuja Wang, he studied with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music. In this, his first concerto recording, he is accompanied by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (LSO) under the baton of their principal conductor, Dima Slobodeniouk.

Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is one of the most technically formidable works in the standard repertoire. It was originally written in 1913, and dedicated to the memory of Max Schmidhof. He was Prokofiev’s friend at the St Petersburg Conservatory, who committed suicide in April 1913 after having written a farewell letter to the composer. The score was destroyed in a fire following the Russian Revolution. Prokofiev reconstructed it in 1923.

Haochen Zhang has a very impressive technique, and he is more than equal to the vertiginous demands of this concerto. He brings a rich Romanticism to the opening theme with its glistening octaves, while his orchestral partners provide a lush backdrop. This contrasts markedly with the second subject where tight exchanges between soloist and orchestra bring Prokofiev’s mischievous sardonic humour vividly to life. The first movement cadenza is not for the fainthearted; it must be one of the most difficult pieces of music ever written for piano. I was impressed with the clarity of Zhang’s playing and his masterful organisation of the demanding material. Zhang’s fingerwork in the scherzo second movement is dazzling. Slobodeniouk is to be commended for keeping soloist and orchestra so tightly coordinated. The intermezzo opens with the LSO’s strings, brass and bass drum conjuring an aura or menace and dark parody. Zhang shows an impressive command of texture and colour as he presents us with a pageant of grotesques. Like the first movement, the finale is full of striking contrasts. Zhang begins the movement in electrifying fashion, with the opening figuration descending the piano like a lightning bolt. The leaping first subject is played with a razor-sharp articulation that creates a real adrenaline rush. In the second subject, we hear more of Prokofiev’s poetry as Zhang allows the composer’s wonderful melodies to bloom. Overall, this is a superb performance that compares well with the leading recordings of this concerto such as those by Kissin and Yundi Li.

Tchaikovsky’s B Flat Minor Piano Concerto is one of the most popular pieces of music ever written, so the risk of any performance is that it sounds stale. I am pleased to say that there is nothing hackneyed about Zhang’s performance. He looks at everything with a fresh eye, and he balances power with refinement throughout. Slobodeniouk and the LSO throw down the gauntlet to their soloist in the opening bars, and Zhang responds with rock-solid chords. He displays an impressive variety of touch (some of the playing is unusually dry but highly effective). There is a willingness to look afresh at some of the most famous passages of this concerto. The exchanges between soloist and woodwind in the opening bars of the slow movement are particularly enchanting, while the prestissimo middle section is played with a fleet-fingered mercurial delicacy. The finale opens at a steady pace. Zhang closely observes the tenuto markings. Soloist and orchestra pick up the pace in the subsequent Russian dance material: Zhang’s playing is combustible, although it never sounds ugly or harsh. The coda is a barnstorming piece of playing that would bring the house down in a live performance. There are many exceptionally fine recordings of this concerto by artists such as Pletnev, Volodos and Horowitz. While Zhang may not match these artists in every respect, he certainly gives them a run for their money, and offers many fresh insights.

Soloist and orchestra both excel in this recording. I am delighted to see Prokofiev’s gargantuan second piano concerto receive greater exposure.

Robert Beattie

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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