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Haiou Zhang (piano)
My 2020
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No 30 in E major, Op 109 [18:34]
Piano Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111 [27:32]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Largo from Trio Sonata No 5 for organ in C major, BWV529 (arr. Samuil Feinberg) [8:02]
Aria: 'Schafe können sicher weiden' (Sheep May Safely Graze) – Andantino from ‘Hunt’ Cantata, BWV 208 (arr. Dinu Lipatti) [5:26]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Beethoven’s cadenza & final part of first movement, Allegro moderato from Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58 [4:44]
Für Elise from Bagatelle No 25 in A minor, WoO 59 [3:01]
rec. October 2020, Tonstudio, Ölberg-Kirche, Kreuzberg, Berlin
HÄNSSLER CLASSIC HC20079 [67:25]

My 2020 is the Chinese/German pianist Haiou Zhang’s third release I have reviewed, and his fifth for Hänssler Classic. At eleven, Zhang was accepted at the junior academy of the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. He graduated with honours in 2002, and continued in Germany at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hannover. He has a Master’s degree in piano performance and a doctorate in solo concert performance.

In the liner notes, the pianist reflects at length on his personal feelings for 2020, ‘an exceptional year with many exceptions’ owing to the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic and international armed conflicts. At the centre of the coronavirus outbreak was the city of Wuhan. Zhang has strong links to Wuhan, notably in his role as visiting guest artist with the Wuhan Philharmonic Orchestra. It must have been alarming for him because just before the outbreak he gave a number of masterclasses at Wuhan universities. In the notes, he deliberates on the terrible worldwide death toll of the pandemic that has turned life into a ‘nightmare’ for so many, and how our lifestyles cannot now be taken for granted.

My review five years ago discussed Zhang playing Mozart’s Piano Concertos No 20 K466 and No 21 K467, recorded a few years earlier with the Heidelberger Sinfoniker under Thomas Fey. Next, I reviewed his album of Mozart’s Concertos No 12 K414 and No 13 K415 in Ignaz Lachner’s arrangements for piano with string quintet, performed with string players of the NDR Philharmonic; that disc gave Zhang nominations in two categories for a prestigious Opus Klassik Award. The Hannover-based Zhang has favoured the piano music of the great Austro/German masters, and the present disc is no exception.

Beethoven’s late piano sonatas are those from No 28, Op 101 to No 32, Op 111. The biographer Prof. Barry Cooper’s The Creation of Beethoven's 35 Piano Sonatas regards the sonatas as ‘a cornerstone of the piano repertoire’, and as some of the most challenging for the soloist. Zhang plays here the sonatas No 30 in E major, Op 109 from 1820 and No 32 in C minor, Op 111 from 1822. One very soon detects Zhang’s convincing affinity with these thoroughly rewarding works.

Zhang’s playing in the three-movement E major sonata is highly responsive, with some gloriously tranquil moments, but he also supplies determination and impressive reserves of vitality when needed. Best of all is the final movement, an outstandingly designed theme with six variations, lasting some twelve-and-a-half minutes. Zhang communicates writing of a contemplative, almost religious character interspersed with contrasting variations of a starker reality of turbulence and storm.

Zhang’s empathy is even more visible in the C minor sonata. In the Maestoso movement, an Allegro, Zhang produces a resoundingly impassioned and squally character. The nearly eighteen-minute magnificent Arietta, an Adagio, is a theme, five variations and a Coda. Clearly undaunted by the challenges Zhang ensures that a generous spirit runs through the movement and produces irresistible contrasts.

Competition in the area of recordings of Beethoven’s sonatas is fiercely intense. Many foremost players recorded complete sets: Schnabel, Backhaus, Kempff, Arrau, Kovacevich, Barenboim, Brendel, Pollini, Schiff, Goode, and many, many more. I cannot claim that Zhang’s playing equals the inspirational artistry, intimacy and expressive mastery of those leading proponents, but I relish his sense of ebullient spontaneity, intelligent musicianship and commendable range of tone colour.

Two J. S. Bach piano transcriptions offer an appealing contrast to Beethoven’s sonatas. Zhang has selected Samuil Feinberg’s transcription of the Largo from Trio Sonata No 5 for organ, BWV529. Engaging yet somewhat serious, Zhang’s playing draws me into the dream-like narrative tinged with melancholy.

One of the best known and most loved melodies in all classical music is J.S. Bach’s aria Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep May Safely Graze) the Andantino from ‘Hunt’ Cantata, BWV 208. This piece has been arranged for various combinations of instruments and many times for solo piano, for example by Egon Petri and Myra Hess. Zhang plays Dinu Lipatti’s transcription of this glorious melody in a performance that feels gentle and suitably soothing.

Labelled as a bonus, Beethoven’s two other works serve as fillers. First comes his own cadenza and final part of the first movement Allegro moderato from the Piano Concerto No 4. This is firm and determined playing, splendidly executed; Zhang is entirely up to the technical demands of the piece. There follows Für Elise from Bagatelle No 25 in A minor, WoO 59, one of the most famous piano pieces ever, which Zhang plays simply delightfully.

The sound engineers get impressive tone colours and wide dynamics from Zhang’s piano, a Bechstein D 282 concert grand. Zhang’s own liner notes say little about the works themselves.

Haiou Zhang, a first-class soloist, shows a compelling affinity for J.S. Bach and Beethoven in this satisfying and rewarding programme.

Michael Cookson



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