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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 (1913) [31:44]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1874) [33:55]
Haochen Zhang (piano)
Lahti Symphony Orchestra/Dima Slobodeniouk
rec. January 2018 (Tchaikovsky) & March 2018 (Prokofiev), Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
Reviewed as a 24/96 stereo download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2381 SACD [66:29]

BIS already have two pretty decent recordings of these concertos on their books. The Tchaikovsky features Yevgeny Sudbin with the São Paulo Symphony under John Neschling (BIS-1586), the Prokofiev Freddy Kempf, Andrew Litton and the Bergen Phil (BIS-1820). I’ve certainly admired Kempf in other repertoire, but it’s Sudbin who lingers longest in the mind, his Rachmaninov with Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony very fine indeed.

Why the duplication? Well, past experience suggests BIS only do this when something - or someone - rather special demands to be heard. In this case, it’s the Chinese pianist, Haochen Zhang (b. 1990). Even in a musical galaxy studded with stellar talent, this man’s star has been in the ascendancy since 2009, when he became one of the youngest winners of the prestigious Van Cliburn competition (gold medal and first prize). He shared the honours with another remarkable artist, Japan’s Nobuyuki Tsujii, who I’ve described as a ‘profound and bewitching talent’ (review). As for Zhang, I see he’s already given us two solo recitals - BIS and Harmonia Mundi - which have yet to be assessed on these pages. The Lahti orchestra are no strangers to MusicWeb, though, their BIS recordings of Sibelius and Aho frankly indispensable. The band’s principal conductor, the Russian Dima Slobodeniouk, is also familiar from the Aho and Fagerlund albums he’s made with them in recent years.

So, what about the competition? I’m inordinately fond of Michel Béroff’s Prokofiev concertos, made in joyful partnership with Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester in 1974 (EMI-Warner). These are big, often boisterous performances, with a sound to match, that still give great pleasure after all this time. Alas, the recent crop of Op. 16 recordings has been very disappointing: among them is Yuja Wang’s misjudged account with Gustavo Dudamel and his Bolívars (Deutsche Grammophon); and Vadym Kholodenko’s rather pedestrian one with the Fort Worth SO under Miguel Harth-Bedoya (Harmonia Mundi). I’ve been more successful with the Tchaikovsky, notably the thoughtful and refreshing performances from Xiayin Wang, the RSNO and Peter Oundjian (Chandos), and that of Alexandra Dariescu, Darrell Ang and the RPO (Signum). For me, these two versions are far preferable to Beatrice Rana’s splashy, attention-seeking one, although I suspect Michael Cookson would beg to differ. (Her coupling is identical to Zhang’s.)

The original version of Prokofiev’s Op. 16, composed in 1913, was destroyed by fire and reconstructed by the composer ten years later. Zhang’s reading, richly Russianate, looks back to the 19th century - to Tchaikovsky in particular - while Béroff finds a restless modernity here that places the piece firmly in the 20th. That’s especially true of the first movement. What impresses me most about Zhang’s warm, lyrical playing is its sense of curiosity, revealing as it does tantalising melodic fragments and rhythmic twists that rivals tend to miss. It helps that Christian Starke’s ‘hear through’ recording, sensibly balanced, allows one to appreciate these hidden pleasures. Not only is Béroff’s approach more broad brush, the analogue sound ‘shreds’ in the tuttis.) I’m sure Zhang’s unassuming planism will appeal to those weary of the usual excesses. Slobodeniouk is clearly of the same mind, proving a sympathetic accompanist at all times..

After that, revisiting the Kempf recording was quite a sobering experience. How slow it now seems - sluggish, even. Indeed, this performance burns with a much lower flame than I remembered. Ditto Kirill Gerstein’s (Myrios), but then I found conductor James Gaffigan’s Prokofiev symphonies rather dull (Challenge). Quite simply, neither pianist comes close to Béroff’s brilliance, nor the freshness and forensic skills of this talented newcomer. They aren’t as well recorded, either.

Alas, custom has staled the Tchaikovsky B flat minor concerto, so I’m inclined to avoid it. That said, I’ll make an exception for Xiayin Wang and Alexandra Dariescu, both of whom reminded me of the work’s infinite variety. Even more important, both pianists - and their respective conductors - have the good sense not to try and imitate the legendary keyboard titans who made the piece their own. From its majestic, nicely proportioned opening bars, it’s clear Zhang and Slobodeniouk’s Tchaikovsky 1 is cast from the same mould. The sound of this magnificent Steinway D - so full bodied - is even better caught here than it is in the Prokofiev, recorded two months later. In fact, it’s a perfect metaphor for this performance as a whole, which displays a level of musical inspiration and technical excellence that fair took my breath away. As before, Zhang is a master of phrase and detail, the orchestral playing crisp, attractively scaled and beautifully blended. Happily, Slobodeniouk paces it all to perfection. But it’s Zhang who deserves the highest praise, his luminous, deeply felt Andantino exquisitely done. Make no mistake, this pianist is well up to the big moments in the famously flamboyant finale; and what a thrilling ride it is. A very different account to Sudbin’s volatile one, and, I think, far more rewarding, too.

In an unrelated review earlier this year I remarked that age makes one yearn for new and revitalising takes on old favourites. I’ve heard a few of those recently, to which must be added Zhang’s Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. As it happens, Alexandre Kantorow, another much younger pianist of extraordinary skill - which includes good sense and good judgment - is also a BIS artist to watch. In fact, his intelligent and insightful Saint-Saëns is already on my shortlist of the year’s best recordings. The liner-notes, a model of simplicity and readability - other labels, please note - are by Andrew Huth

Zhang’s Prokofiev is very good, his Tchaikovsky excellent; a bright new star in the musical firmament.

Dan Morgan

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