Piano Recital: Haochen Zhang
Boulez / Debussy / Janáček / Liszt

Lukaskirche, Lucerne, 2018-11-21

4-star rating

2018-11-27 — Original posting

Haochen Zhang @ Lucerne Festival, Lukaskirche, 2018-11-21 (© Peter Fischli / LUCERNE FESTIVAL)
Ein extrem fokussierter Pianist, ein extrem anspruchsvolles Programm — Zusammenfassung

In Boulez’ zweisätziger Sonate überzeugte Haochen Zhang mit hoher Virtuosität und absoluter Treffsicherheit in den anforderungsreichen Sprüngen und blitzschnellen Wechseln in Dynamik, Anschlag und Tonqualität.

Ruhiger, gelassener, dynamisch sehr differenziert, erinnernd an den sphärischen Klang der Äolsharfe danach Debussy’s Préludes “Bruyères” und “La Terasse des audiences du clair de lune“. Im “Feux d’artifice” explodierte das hochvirtuose Tastenfeuerwerk Haochen Zhang’s—brilliant gespielt!

Technisch perfekt, virtuos, subtil, mit warmem, singendem Ton in den Kantilenen, vielleicht etwas zu flüssig, päsentierte der Pianist Janáček’s “Im Nebel”. Allerdings kam für mich die Verzweiflung Janáček’s über den Verlust seiner Tochter Olga nicht genügend zum Ausdruck.

Der Pianist meisterte Liszts Sonate mit perfektem Spiel, ohne sichtbare Anstrengung. Er achtete auf versteckte Melodien, auf makellose, dynamische Kontrolle und kostete alle Klangfarben des Instrumentes aus. In der Schlusssteigerung entfesselte Haochen Zangh nochmals nicht nur sein hochvirtuoses Potenzial und technisches Können, sondern auch seine Fähigkeiten im expressiven und dramatischen Spiel. Eine lange Stille herrschte nach der letzten Note, bevor der frenetische Applaus einsetzte.

Table of Contents

Introduction / Artist

This was the first of three Debut Recitals on successive days that I attended this fall. These recitals are part of the Lucerne Piano Festival 2018. They all took place in Lucerne’s Lukaskirche, a spacious venue that is ideal for piano recitals.

The first pianist in these Debut Recitals was Haochen Zhang (*1990, see also Wikipedia). Haochen Zhang grew up in Shanghai, started playing the piano at the age of 3.5 years. He made his first concert appearance at age five. One year later, he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 in C major, K.467, with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. 2005, after studies at the conservatory in Shanghai, as well as at the Shenzen Arts School, Zhang moved to the US, where he continued his education at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with Gary Graffman (*1928), the teacher who also taught Lang Lang (*1982) and Yuja Wang (*1987).

Haochen Zhang won the first prize at the Shanghai Piano Competition twice, at age seven and nine. 2007, he was the youngest winner of the China International Piano Competition. The artist’s breakthrough came with his win at the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009, ex aequo with Nobuyuki Tsujii (*1988). This almost guaranteed the start of a successful concert career, both as a soloist and as chamber musician. In 2017, he presented his first recording with works by Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Leoš Janáček, and Johannes Brahms.


In his Lucerne Debut Recital program, Haochen Zhang selected two works by composers also featured in his first recording, plus compositions by Boulez and Debussy:

A challenging program, indeed, also for the listener!


The venue was almost sold out for this recitals (as also the two recitals that followed). My wife and I had seats in row 9 of the right-hand side lateral block in the nave. The piano was a Steinway D-274 concert grand.

Concert & Review

Boulez: Piano Sonata No.1

Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016) completed his Piano Sonata No.1 (the first of three sonatas) in 1946, at age 21. With this, Boulez wrote one of his first works that followed the principles, the rules of dodecaphony and serialism. The sonata has two movements:

  1. Lent – Beaucoup plus allant (slow – moving along a lot more)
  2. Assez large – Rapide (quite broad – quick)

The Performance

I would characterize Haochen Zhang’s playing as very / extremely focused. One could not only see this from his concentration on the keyboard / the instrument, but also from his involuntary facial mimics, his brisk head movements that associated with strong musical accents.

I. Lent – Beaucoup plus allant

It is in the nature of 12-tone serial music that there is no melody in the conventional sense. At least in this performance, though, it was not what some people might spontaneously call a “sequence of unrelated, nonsensical sound events”. Provided one was open to this music, and willing to let oneself into this music, Haochen Zhang’s performance opened an interesting world! Rather than seeking non-existent melodies, I found flows of sound, “lyrical waves”. Sudden, impulsive, splashing chords, alternated not with melodies, but still what I would call “12-tone cantabile segments”, often in the most subtle, whispered tones. And somehow, magically, those sound events connected to form phrases, and the movement altogether formed a convincing build-up, up to a climax.

II. Assez large – Rapide

Extreme dynamic contrasts, pauses, erratic bursts, reminding of aleatoric music form the “surface” of this music. Almost unbelievably, this formed a compelling musical flow. Similarly, there was no easily memorizable melody (definitely not in the conventional sense). Yet, strangely, the tones connected to a kind of cantabile, seemingly singable sequences, be it only small snippets of melodic motifs. At least for the unprepared listener, there were no real “themes”, i.e., recurring melodic or harmonic pattern, and it all connected to form a musical flow. At the same time, certainly in some busy, fast parts, the music was evoking pictures, and be it only that of a busy marketplace, the hodgepodge of voices, the lively interaction of people at a fun fair.

Besides the music, which I found highly interesting, Haochen Zhang amazed with his firmness and virtuosity. Boulez’ music requires constant jumping between the extremes of the keyboard, ultra-fast changes in dynamics and tonal quality, hitting keys at blazing speed (and with the right type of touch). I don’t have the score for this music, but I still would bet that Zhang didn’t miss a single key: an absolutely compelling performance, and an incredible achievement already in memorizing all of this complex score, the timing, etc.—congratulations!

Rating: ★★★★★

Debussy: Préludes, Livre 2, L.123 (5, 7, 12)

After the above challenging start of his recital, Haochen Zhang presented three Préludes by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). From the composer’s two books of twelve Préludes each, he selected three pieces from the second book, written 1912/1913, and published as Préludes, Livre 2, L.123. The Préludes in this concert are marked bold. Originally, No.6, “General Lavine” – eccentric, was also part of the program.

  1. Brouillards
  2. Feuilles mortes
  3. La Puerta del Vino
  4. Les Fées sont d’exquises danseuses
  5. Bruyères
  6. “General Lavine” – eccentric
  7. La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune
  8. Ondine
  9. Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C.
  10. Canope
  11. Les tierces alternées
  12. Feux d’artifice

In an earlier blog post from 2012-11-16, I did a short comparison of two complete recordings of Debussy’s Préludes.

The Performance

5. Bruyères: Calme — Un peu animé

I don’t know what pictures the composer had in mind in this piece with the name of the town of Bruyères in Eastern France, on the west side. In Haochen Zhang’s interpretation, the first part to me evoked the lucidity, the clarity of the light on an early summer morning. Virgin, neutral, a reflective, peaceful, innocent scenery, playful, subtle movements without purpose of direction: very atmospheric.

Only at the Un peu animé (a little animated), the music started evoking a warm, comfortable feeling, through rounder sounds and melodious elements in the middle voices, while the playful arabesques (wind playing with an Aeolian harp?) continued in the descant: warmth and serenity!

7. La Terrasse des audiences du clair de lune: Lent

Also here: utmost clarity, serenity, calm, extremely gentle, but clear touch, sprinklings of starlight through Aeolian sounds at the top of the keyboard in extreme ppp. Wide-spanning sonority, which at the climax seems to grow into the dimensions of a cathedral, even the width of the night sky, clarity, darkness. Excellent playing, perfect control of the most refined keyboard touch!

12. Feux d’artifice: Modérément animé — Scherzando — Tempo rubato — Mouvement élargi

A highly virtuosic Prélude: technically brilliant, perfect playing, impulsive and eruptive where the firework really takes off. Impressive, blazing sound cascades, and a mysterious ending in darkness: mastership at the keyboard. Though, it was perhaps a bit technical, maybe a tad cold overall?

Rating: ★★★★

Janáček: In the Mists

The Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928) has only produced a small oeuvre. Besides his operas and orchestral compositions, the few piano and chamber music works are all highly significant contributions to the music of the early 20th century. In the Mists from 1912 is the last one of only three major piano works that appeared within the composer’s lifetime. This is a sonata-like composition in four movements:

  1. Andante
  2. Molto Adagio — Presto — Tempo I — Presto — Grave — Presto — Tempo I — Adagio
  3. Andantino — Poco mosso
  4. Presto — Meno mosso — Andante — Adagio — Vivo

Janáček suffered several incisive, tragic events, which had their effect on much of his oeuvre. “In the Mists” to a large degree is a reflection on the tragic death of his daughter Olga (*1882) in 1903. Janáček’s Opera “Jenúfa” also has strong ties to Olga’s death, and at the same time, this caused a crisis in the composer’s marital life. Also the composer’s second child, Vladimir (*1888), lived for only about 2 years. Moreover, when he composed “In the Mists”, his operas were still being rejected by the Prague opera.

Besides reflecting the tragedies in the composer’s life, Janáček’s piano works bears strong influences by Moravian and Slovak folk music.

The Performance

I. Andante

Haochen Zhang’s tempo may have been spot-on with the annotation (♩= 96 initially), and his playing certainly was very subtle, dolcissimo at the beginning. Still, the music felt a tad fast, a little too fluent, lacking weight—the weight of tragedy. I missed the exploration of Janáček’s sadness which is so omnipresent in this piece.

II. Molto Adagio — Presto — Tempo I — Presto — Grave — Presto — Tempo I — Adagio

Technically perfect, utterly clean playing also here, and utmost subtlety, control and refinement in the touch. Yet, again, I missed most of the sadness, the tragedy, the (expected) atmosphere. More agogics, extra hesitations, maybe slightly extending some rests might have helped? In any case, it was most obvious to me that technical perfection alone doesn’t “cut it” in this piece, nor does clarity (quite to the contrary, given the title!).

III. Andantino — Poco mosso

I’m repeating myself: perfection, a warm, singing tone in the cantilenas. However, where’s the forlornness, the hopelessness, the (Janáček’s!) utter despair, the extreme melancholy??

IV. Presto — Meno mosso — Andante — Adagio — Vivo

And once more: perfect playing, virtuosic and accurate, precise, often dense and intense. However, again, where’s the tragedy, the depression? And those flashing cascades (feroce e stringendo), aren’t those supposed to be the violent strokes of fate, hitting the composer’s daughter?

Rating: ★★★½

Perfect playing, but…

Liszt: Sonata in B minor, S.178

This is not the first time that I listened to the Sonata in B minor, S.178 by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886); for earlier concert performances and information on the sonata see my postings about the recital by Juan Pérez Floristán at ETH Zurich, 2017-02-07, and, from the same year, also at Lucerne’s Lukaskirche, the recital by Beatrice Rana on 2017-11-24. The sonata has the following tempo annotations and time signatures:

  • Lento assai (4/4) —
  • Allegro energico (2/2) —
  • Grandioso (3/2 — 4/4) —
  • Recitativo (3/2 — 2/2) —
  • Andante sostenuto (3/4) —
  • Quasi Adagio (4/4 — 3/4) —
  • Allegro energico (2/2) —
  • Più mosso (2/2 — 3/2)
  • Cantando espress., senza slentare (4/4) —
  • Stretta quasi Presto
  • Presto
  • Prestissimo (4/4 — 3/2) —
  • Andante sostenuto (3/4) —
  • Allegro moderato (4/4) —
  • Lento assai

The Performance

Lento assai — Allegro energico — Grandioso —

Immediately obvious in the introduction: Haochen Zhang’s careful and accurate articulation: not over-pedaling, not trying to hide dissonances, perfect dynamic control. In the Allegro energico, the tempo was measured, firm, not precipitated, the agogics in the bass line equally firm and determined. Also the subsequent cascades were controlled, and once the musical flow took off, the articulation in the Leitmotiv remained clear—and the artist formed big dramatic arches, up to the first climax, where the octave cascades start, and beyond.

Haochen Zhang’s technical abilities are astounding (no wonder, given Gary Graffman as a teacher!). His playing perfect, it all sounded almost easy—yet, I did not have the impression of mere show. The latter, though, may have been the composer’s intent. There is a virtuosic show / wizardry / theatrical element in this sonata, and Liszt knew exactly how to impress the audience! Consequently, I expected some more of a demonic aspect in this sonata. That said: I did not have the impression of a “cold, purely technical” performance: Haochen Zhang definitely played with sensibility—maybe he just didn’t dare exposing more of the theatrical side in this music?

As already in the other works, Haochen Zhang’s dynamic control was flawless, and he always paid attention to secondary / hidden voices / melodies. And he not just applied his excellent dynamic control to the subtle moments, but he was equally able to produce an astounding sonority in the towering ff and fff chord blocks.

Andante sostenuto — Quasi Adagio —

Beautiful singing in the cantilena, and most gentle, subtle playing / articulation in the Quasi Adagio (indeed: dolcissimo con intimo sentimento!). Very eloquent in the recitative segment, and then again a consequent, impressive dynamic build-up, forming big structural arches with an overwhelming fff climax, followed by an equally impressive, controlled gradual, decrescendo, down to ppp and way beyond, where the hammers were barely touching the strings.

Allegro energico — Più mosso —

Now, the initial theme returns—as the theme of a (mostly three-part) fugue with multiple themes. Here, I definitely found Haochen Zhang’s tempo too fast. The execution was (expectedly) perfect, yet, at this pace, the clarity in fast motifs (as it reached the listener’s ears) started to suffer. Also, it became harder for the listener to follow the various themes through the polyphony. Plus, there was little chance to profit from, to expose the excellent sonority of the instrument.

Cantando espress., senza slentare — Stretta quasi Presto — Presto — Prestissimo — Andante sostenuto — Allegro moderato — Lento assai

After this almost oppressively virtuosic segment, culminating in a ff precipitato, the score retracts in a dramatic, almost theatrical decrescendo, and the music starts singing again, turns almost playful. However, this dramatic contrast is only momentary. It is followed by intricate, virtuosic passagework, growing in volume and tempo, into the Stretta quasi Presto, which again builds up to the grandiose Presto and Prestissimo finale. However, Liszt wouldn’t be Liszt, if he didn’t stop abruptly, just to attach a soft ending, partly lyrical, partly transfiguration—yet with tension up to the very final note, isolated and deep in the bass.

It is in this last segment after the fugue, where Haochen Zhang at last unleashed not only his virtuosic potential and technical prowess, but also his expressive and dramatic capabilities, giving the sonata and his performance a most astounding and conclusive ending. There was a long silence after the last note, until the frenetic applause set in: this proved how impressed the audience was!

Rating: ★★★★

Encore 1 — Chopin: Nocturne No.20 in C♯ minor, op.posth., B.49 / CT 127

After that effective finale, the audience would of course not let the artist go without encore. Haochen Zhang turned to Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849), with his Nocturne No.20 in C♯ minor, composed around 1830, but published only in 1870. The tempo annotation is Lento con gran espressione. The introduction must be the saddest in all of Chopin’s Nocturnes. This seemed an almost depressing ending to the recital. Luckily, the main theme is more melancholic than sad, and in bar 21, the music undergoes a transfiguration, before the initial theme returns. This was, it offers a more comforting, calm and peaceful ending.

Naturally, after the Liszt sonata, Haochen Zhang did not overemphasize the sadness of the beginning. He offered a very atmospheric (and more than perfectly adequate!) performance: especially the second half was extremely subtle, charming even, exposing more of the artist’s emotional, lyrical side, and an excellent contrast after Liszt’s excess virtuosity.

Rating: ★★★★

Encore 2 — Mozart: Piano Sonata No.10 in C major, K.330 — II. Andante cantabile

In his second and final encore, Haochen Zhang moved back in time—and into (almost) pure lyricism. From the Piano Sonata No.10 in C major, K.330 (300h) from 1783, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), the artist selected the middle movement, annotated Andante cantabile. Such peaceful, comforting music in a beautiful, unpretentious and humble interpretation. It was the perfect way to end the recital by warming people’s hearts for the wintry afternoon!

Rating: ★★★★½

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