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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 (1912-13; re-constructed 1923) [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. 2018, Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
SACD/CD Hybrid stereo/multichannel; reviewed in CD stereo
BIS BIS-2381 SACD [66:29]

Haochen Zhang (b. 1990; Shanghai, China) shared first prize at the 2009 Van Cliburn Competition with Nobuyuki Tsujii, the blind Japanese pianist who initially eclipsed him in the aftermath. Zhang has recently garnered much attention, however, and seemingly will emerge as one of the more successful Van Cliburn winners. Here he takes on two of the most virtuosic and brilliant piano concertos in the repertory. The Prokofiev Second, which appears first on the disc, is one of the most commonly chosen concertos at major piano competitions, and in the last couple of decades has been appearing on concert programs nearly as often as the ever popular Prokofiev Third. The Tchaikovsky First has been a perennial favorite for over a century and is arguably performed and recorded more often than any other piano concerto.

Zhang turns in an excellent performance of the Prokofiev Second. In fact, in the first, second and fourth movements I can say he is as compelling as, or even better than any other pianist I’ve heard in the thirty or so versions in my collection. It’s only in the problematic third movement that he’s a bit less effective, exhibiting a faster, lighter approach than the music requires. Zhang plays this movement in a manner similar to that of fellow Chinese pianist Yundi Li (DG). Prokofiev wrote this work in the wake of the suicide of his conservatory friend and fellow pianist Maxilian Schmidtof. The third movement features a main theme that has a sort of cackling, sassy character and thus could be interpreted in a humorous way. But it’s a dark, mocking tune that, on its last appearance, stammers trying to express itself, and then yields to utter catastrophe at the end. Ashkenazy (Decca), Gutierrez (Chandos), Vinnitskaya (Naive) and especially Yuja Wang (DG) deliver the dark character here with more weight and the essential feeling of anger and tragedy. But I don’t want to mislead the reader: Zhang makes a fine case for his approach, playing with his usual fine sense for voicing, dynamics and phrasing in general.

Elsewhere in the concerto you notice his way of consistently integrating the harmonies into the sonic fabric, deftly balancing them with the main line. You hear so much meaningful detail too: where the mostly excellent Ashkenazy and Wang are somewhat muddy in the finale’s central fast episode, Zhang is crisp and clear, letting you hear thematic lines often buried in other performances. His first movement cadenza which, in an innovative stroke, Prokofiev uses as the development section, is spectacularly played. Zhang’s technique is flawless in this monstrously challenging and lengthy solo, considered by many the most difficult cadenza ever written. Notice how he incarnates so colorfully its many tones, deftly turning his piano into an orchestra as notes linger while new ones sing or dance or disrupt.

The Lahti Symphony Orchestra, one of Finland’s finest ensembles, plays well for their insightful conductor Dima Slobodeniouk, appointed to the podium in 2016. Overall then, despite a slightly less effective third movement, this must be counted as one of the top four or five accounts of this concerto, along with those of Wang, Ashkenazy, Vinnitskaya and Gutierrez. If you ask me to choose which is the best, it might come down to a rhyme—Wang and Zhang. I haven’t heard the recent Beatrice Rana performance on Warner Classics, but suspect it is very good since I heard/watched her brilliant account in the 2013 Cliburn Competition finals via a web stream.

Zhang’s Tchaikovsky First begins with a brisk, trenchant account of the big introductory theme. The pianist plays the ensuing cadenza with precision, clarity and his usual fine sense for phrasing. The return of the theme is powerful and brilliantly imagined. With the appearance of the lively folk-like main theme, the brisk pacing continues but with spirit and a sense of vitality and thrust. The rest of the movement comes off well, the two lyrical themes nicely phrased, and the stormy development section played urgently with great excitement by the orchestra and thrills from the pianist’s scorching octaves. The big cadenza near the end is moderately paced and a most effective account.

The second movement is played beautifully by the orchestra, the flute delivering the main theme with great sensitivity and the two cellos later on playing it with the same kind of warmth and feeling. Zhang phrases it with much the same spirit and plays the fast middle section with a good sense for the music’s frolicsome character. The finale takes off with just the right celebratory character and the pianist’s accenting and rubato are generally quite effective throughout, though his slight ritards at :59 and 2:46 come across as somewhat odd even if they don’t quite sabotage the flow of the music. Everything else sounds fine here, and the big octave cadenza near the end is played for power and drama like Cliburn and not for speed like Argerich (with Kondrashin). In the end, with fine support from conductor and orchestra, this performance must be assessed as easily among the better recent ones, though it does not eclipse the aforementioned Cliburn (RCA), as well as the Richter (DG), Argerich (with Dutoit on DG) and Argerich (with Kondrashin on Philips), the latter a bit brusque or even brutal in places but hard to beat for sheer intensity and virtuosity. The sound reproduction on this new BIS SACD in both works is clear and well balanced, quite state of the art.

Incidentally, coupling these two works is not so unusual as they were paired in two other recent recordings: the aforementioned Beatrice Rana and the Vladimir Feltsman (Sony Classics). In 1974 Tedd Joselson, then an eighteen year old student at Juilliard with no competition experience, paired them in his debut recording on RCA with Eugene Ormandy achieving quite decent results. As for this new pairing of the two concertos by Haochen Zhang, both performances are imaginative, brilliantly executed and offer further evidence of the pianist’s superior gifts, with the Prokofiev being the more outstanding of the two.

Robert Cummings
Previous review: Dan Morgan ~ Robert Beattie

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