Piano Recital: Byron Wei-Xin Zhou
Sang / Beethoven / Scriabin / Rachmaninoff
Victoria Hall, Geneva, 2019-01-04
I had been invited to review an orchestral concert at Geneva’s Victoria Hall, a mere three weeks after my recent concert experience at this venue. This now was an orchestral concert, featuring three works:
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791): Opera “Le nozze di Figaro“, K.492 – Overture
- Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849): Piano Concerto in F minor, op.21, CT 48
- Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847): Symphony No.4 in A major, op.90, “Italian”
The soloist in the concerto was set to be the Chinese pianist Byron Wei-Xin Zhou. The orchestra was the Cameristi della Scala, playing under the baton of Henry Hao-An Cheng. This was the third and last event in a Chinese Cross Cultural Music Festival which took place in Geneva, between 2018-12-31 and 2019-01-04, organized by Time Ranger, Inc., in cooperation with Studiomusica Hungary.
The first two events (a Gala concert on New Year’s Eve at Victoria Hall, and a Recital with a Chinese Baritone presenting songs by Chinese composers, on Chinese poems) had apparently been very successful.
A Cancellation, and a Resolution
Sadly, on January 4th, the orchestra didn’t make it from Milan to Geneva, and so, the concert had to be canceled on the morning of the event. Fortunately, at a few hours notice, the soloist, Byron Wei-Xin Zhou, offered to perform a solo recital instead:
As he told me after the concert, Byron Wei-Xin Zhou had been rehearsing the Chopin concerto up to the very morning of the concert, when he learned about the cancellation. Quick decisions were needed. Byron did not travel with a ready-made solo program in his sleeves. So, he quickly looked through his repertoire, searching for pieces that he could download from IMSLP for a quick rehearsal. He did start off with a composition from his home country (where he did have the sheet music at hand), then came up with a challenging program from Beethoven on to compositions by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff:
- Tong Sang (1923 – 2012): “Fair Maiden from Afar” (1943)
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): Piano Sonata No.4 in E♭ major, op.7
- Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915): 8 Études, op.42: No.4, Étude in F♯ major
- Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915): 8 Études, op.42: No.5, Étude in C♯ minor
- Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943): Piano Sonata No.2 in B♭ minor, op.36
Byron stated that none of the pieces in the program he had performed in concert for at least half a year. With these special circumstances, naturally, a “five-star” performance would be a mere miracle that one could at best expect from a seasoned keyboard virtuoso. Therefore, one should take any critical remarks below with a grain of salt. We are grateful that Byron Wei-Xin Zhou was able and willing to step in with a solo program!
Let me first give some information on the artist of the evening. Byron Wei-Xin Zhou (aged around 25) grew up in Shanghai. There, he also graduated in 2011 from the Music Middle School affiliated with the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (上海音乐学院附中), where he studied with Christopher Zhong. At that time, he had already performed in various cities throughout China, as well as on a recital tour along the U.S. West Coast, and in 2008 he made his debut in New York, aged around 15. Byron then moved to the Boston area, where he entered the New England Conservatory of Music, studying with Ms. Wha Kyung Byun. He graduated in 2015 (Bachelor and Master degrees), winning the New England Conservatory Concerto Competition. He is continuing his studies in the Graduate Diploma program under Bruce Brubaker.
Henry Hao-An Cheng, music director for the First Chinese Cross Cultural Music Festival won Byron Wei-Xin Zhou as soloist for this season’s Festival Tour.
The instrument was a Steinway model D-274 concert grand.
As expected after the cancellation & change in program, the audience was fairly small, filling only the front part of Victoria Hall’s parquet seating. My wife and I had excellent seats in the middle of row 8, right in the center of the audience.
Sang: Fair Maiden from Afar (1943)
Tong Sang (1923 – 2012) is a Chinese composer. In the 1940’s, he was a Red Army officer and activist in underground Communist Party circles, before he became a music student in Shanghai, studying with Wolfgang Fraenkel (1897 – 1983) and Julius Schloß (1902 – 1973), two former students of Arnold Schönberg (1874 – 1951) and Alban Berg (1885 – 1935). Fraenkel and Schloß managed to flee from Nazi Germany and settled in Shanghai. Under their guidance, Tong Sang not only learned composing, but also developed a passion for Western atonal music, for which “Fair Maiden from Afar” (1943) gave a vivid testimony:
Although modest and unpretentious in his appearance, looking younger than his 25 years of age, Byron Wei-Xin Zhou started his recital with a convincing, impressive performance of Sang’s piece “Fair Maiden from Afar”.
That composition seems to start in mysterious, romantic harmonies, initially retained, somber, questioning. This soon turned out to be deceptive. There are seemingly tonal melody fragments, motifs, but as a whole, the composition is purely atonal (momentarily bitonal at best), even consequently dissonant. One might ask what this has to do with a “Fair Maiden from Afar” (which we evokes lovely, even gentle associations). However, even though dissonant and atonal, the harmonies are never painful or irritating. Rather, I would describe the music as “clouds of (dis-)harmonies”.
In the beginning, the mood is passive, the music itself seems to listen to the harmonics as they build up from simple, dissonant clusters in the undamped strings, then gradually fade away. A “pure sound painting” from layers of figures, clusters, tremolos, occasional cascades of dissonant chords.
Yes, dissonant, but beautiful nevertheless, shaped in waves with very subtle dynamic control, from gentle pianissimo, building up to the full, impressive, occasionally thundering sonority of the Steinway grand. There is no persistent rhythmic pattern. Rhythm exists momentarily, in motifs, very short sequences. Otherwise, the music appears to follow an aleatoric scheme, within the dynamic waves.
However, even though there was no recognizable meter or persistent pace, one could feel Byron’s control in the performance, his calm, the care with which he approached this music. There were momentary eruptions, but the piece overall remained controlled, if not contemplative. I’d have a hard time naming similar compositions (maybe there were some very brief “Scriabin moments”?). To me, the music is unique. And Byron’s performance was impressive, compelling: an excellent way to start the recital!
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.4 in E♭ major, op.7
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) published 32 piano sonatas. Among these, the Piano Sonata No.4 in E♭ major, op.7 from 1796 is the first one that the composer published as an “opus” by itself. It is also bigger than any of the first three sonatas in Beethoven’s op.2 (F minor, A major, C major). The Sonata op.7 comes in four movements:
- Allegro molto e con brio
- Largo, con gran espressione
- Allegro — Minore — Allegro
- Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso
I. Allegro molto e con brio
It’s a big step from Sang’s dissonant world to the harmonious Vienna classics sound in Beethoven’s op.7—yet, the transition seemed easy, even natural! I would characterize Byron’s playing as natural, fluent, focusing on flow, on the dynamic shaping of phrasing arches. His piano sound was rounded, harmonious, the articulation legato overall, maybe sometimes at the limit with the use of the sustain pedal. The acoustics of the venue seemed to enhance, emphasize the legato, maybe softened the occasional staccato. The articulation avoided harsh contrasts, certainly did not get lost in details (Klangrede) at the level of motifs, but concentrated on harmonious phrasing, with inconspicuous agogics.
I liked the pianist’s subtle dynamics, the gentle waves—and yet, the clear structuring into what one might perceive as “tutti” and “solo” segments. Too bad he did not repeat the exposition. Some might see this as “just (ordinary) Vienna classics”. Still, the sonata form to me implies a repeat of the exposition. With the pieces still to follow, I did not expect any technical issues, even though the sonata may be more difficult than what a listener may believe. The playing did seem to go astray for a few bars at the end of the recap section, around the ascending, chromatic scale. However, that was not a technical issue, rather a short memory lapse, and Byron managed to conceal that fairly well. We can hardly blame him for this, given the short preparation time.
II. Largo, con gran espressione
Clearly the best movement in this performance. I liked Byron’s calm, natural flow, unexcited, yet without drop-outs (despite the many rests!), never losing the tension. The cantilenas were beautifully singing, there was barely any superficial note, the dynamics well-shaped, careful, diligent. I was particularly fond of the pp “bird calls”. The movement formed a continuous, gentle tale, momentarily accelerating, then subtly broadening towards the end, while still keeping up the expectation, the tension: very nice!
III. Allegro — Minore — Allegro da capo
Also here, gentle shaping of phrases / dynamics dominated over details in articulation. Legato and flow seemed to prevail over meticulous Klangrede at the level of motifs: a lyrical, serene atmosphere. The Minore set itself apart not just in tonality, but through its (moderately) boiling emotions in the rolling tremolo motifs, a controlled eruption in the first part, gentle decrescendo towards the return of the Allegro (Maggiore) part. Sadly, Byron only observed the repeat in the first part of the Minore section.
IV. Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso
In line with the previous movements, the Rondo theme (ritornello) very much pleased with its “talking” phrases, the momentum that built up in waves, the joyful atmosphere, the singing melodies. The first Intermezzo was fairly wild, an emotional eruption. However, it wasn’t quite as clear as the ritornello, even though the articulation at the level of semiquavers was very careful and truthful to the notation. Also in the second, even more ferocious intermezzo, emotionality and expression prevailed over clarity and accuracy in the demisemiquavers, confirming the previous impression.
Clear highlights in the sonata were the returns to the ritornello after the intermezzo segments: happy, touching moments with a subtle, little ritenuto prior to the a tempo!
Overall Rating: ★★★½
Scriabin: 8 Études, op.42
Alexander Scriabin (1872 – 1915) composed his 8 Études, op.42 in 1903. Albeit short, the eight studies are considered important within Scriabin’s oeuvre for piano solo:
- No.1 in D♭ major: Presto
- No.2 in F♯ minor: ♩=112
- No.3 in F♯ major: Prestissimo
- No.4 in F♯ major: Andante
- No.5 en C♯ minor: Affanato
- No.6 en D♭ major: Esaltato
- No.7 en F minor: Agitato
- No.8 en E♭ major: Allegro
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) performed concerts in memory of Alexander Scriabin after the composer’s death, hereby including Scriabin’s Études in his recitals. Anecdote has it that Rachmaninoff called the Étude No.5 “difficult” to play. It took him a full hour to learn it!
Étude No.4 in F♯ major: Andante
Serene, lyrical, atmospheric, flowing in waves, singing, naturally breathing phrases—what beautiful music! Why only is this piece so short???
Étude No.5 en C♯ minor: Affanato
Here now, we got a first, real impression on Byron Wei-Xin Zhou’s virtuosic abilities. He almost effortlessly seemed to master the challenging figures in the left hand, building up to a powerful, impressive climax. The music was enthralling with its boiling, eruptive emotions—and the pianist managed to evoke, to flood the audience with impressive sonorities from the depth of the Steinway grand!
Needless to say that—with the exception of the piece by Tong Sang, which certainly is hard to memorize—Byron Wei-Xin Zhou was playing from memory. He did not keep his eyes fixed on the keyboard, but also looked into the piano, even occasionally seemed to glance into the audience while playing. However, most likely, he was not really looking, maybe even keeping his eyes half-closed.
Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata No.2 in B♭ minor, op.36
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) may have called Scriabin’s Étude op.42/5 difficult. However, his Piano Sonata No.2 in B♭ minor, op.36 takes the term “difficult” to an entirely different level. He composed this sonata in 1913, three years after completing his Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, op.30. The sonata is not just technically challenging, compared to Scriabin’s Études (and actually most romantic piano sonatas) it is almost monstrous in its powerful gestures. There are three movements, all of which are played (quasi) attacca, to form one single, big piece:
- Allegro agitato —
- Non Allegro —
- L’istesso tempo — Allegro molto — Presto
The sonata was successful, though the composer himself was not satisfied with it. In 1931, Rachmaninoff revised the piece by shortening all three movements. The sonata now lasts less than 20 minutes, as opposed to 25 minutes for the original version. This is the version now typically heard in concert—and also performed in this recital.
So far, I have heard this sonata in concert only once, in Zurich, on 2015-11-27. From that experience, I knew what to expect and was in awe of Byron Wei-Xin Zhou’s decision to perform this piece at short notice.
I. Allegro agitato —
It was immediately clear that (as one could already guess from the Scriabin Études) Byron Wei-Xin Zhou feels at home in highly virtuosic, late-romantic music! He seemed to live in this music, followed its dynamic waves, the violent emotional eruptions. At the same time, also here, he avoided harsh contrasts: his focus seemed on the dynamics and the flow, rather than on clarity in details. In my opinion, he certainly made enough use of the sustain pedal. Overall, a musical performance rather than the glittering show of a super virtuoso.
II. Non Allegro —
As already in the lyrical Meno mosso segments in the first movement, some of the contemplative, calm segments seemed to “talk” classic, if not baroque “language”, while of course the atmosphere (and the artist’s view) remained highly (late-)romantic. The musical flow, the expression seemed far more important and central to the artist than the ultimate clarity, or virtuosic show.
III. L’istesso tempo — Allegro molto — Presto
The comments to the Allegro agitato also apply to the eruptive last movement: a performance with impressive sonority and volume, dramatic language. Even though technical challenges in this piece are horrendous, as a listener, one remained fascinated primarily by the drama, the emotional outbreaks in this music. An impressive performance, congratulations!
Encore 1 — Schumann: 5. “Eusebius” from Carnaval, op.9
After the strenuous Rachmaninoff sonata, the encore could not possibly continue in the same style! Indeed, Byron Wei-Xin Zhou selected a gentle, calm, reflective piece by Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856): from Carnaval, op.9, the fifth piece, “Eusebius” (Adagio — Più lento, molto teneramente). Byron’s performance followed the hesitant course of Schumann’s music, depicting the composer’s contemplative side: very atmospheric and serene. Thanks for giving us a rest, an opportunity to calm down!
Encore 2 — Stravinsky: 1. Danse Russe from Trois mouvements de “Pétrouchka”
One could almost expect that the pianist would not leave it at that, given his obvious penchant towards virtuosic music! So, Byron Wei-Xin Zhou ended the evening with a virtuosic “splash”, a popular piece by Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1882 – 1971): the first movement, “Danse Russe” (Russian dance) from Trois mouvements de “Pétrouchka”.
Naturally, the audience was thrilled, even though, objectively, that performance was not quite as successful as the one in Rachmaninoff or Scriabin. In his enthusiasm, Byron exaggerated the tempo in the first part—though in an impressive performance. Once more, he focused on momentum and drive, rather than on clarity in articulation. The initial tempo caused an almost extreme contrast to the middle section (especially in the A major segment), which then led to a disruption in the musical flow, and the piece lost its tension. However, one should not be too critical about encores—especially given the special circumstances in this recital!
As stated above, I don’t want to make serious (let alone final) judgements on Byron Wei-Xin Zhou prowess as pianist, as this can hardly represent a “regular” piano recital. Still, his technical abilities and potential seem impressive. Thanks for this performance, Byron, and best wishes for your future career!