The Rapt Textures of Haochen Zhang

The Boston Musical Intelligencer

Imagine a completely conventional-looking piano recital program (Chopin, Schubert, Prokofiev), one where you know every piece well, maybe had even had a fling with one or two of the less-difficult ones—and yet from the opening notes the presentation sounded so probing and nuanced, the voicing so originally textured and sometimes unexpectedly deemphatic, the thoughtfulness so arresting, that you were seemingly hearing the works for the first time.

Haochen Zhang, a Shanghai-born Curtis-educated pianist, appeared Saturday evening at Jordan Hall in the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts series. Twenty-six years old in a couple of weeks, he has studied with Gary Graffman and Andreas Haefliger. His dramatically sequenced program comprised Chopin Mazurkas, Schubert Impromptus, Chopin Sonata 2, and finally Prokofiev Sonata 7. (Why the Mazurkas aren’t presented more, and as openers, is hard to understand.)

It was the damndest experience. Zhang plays with poise and aplomb, yet always peering, listening to each line’s levels and inflections, calmly adjusting. That might make his work sound forced or labored or overthought, but his artistry actually has none such, flowing naturally almost always.

While Schubert’s four D935 Impromptus are not everywhere wistful, Zhang was hypnotic throughout, permuting the phrases that we morosely half-heard just a moment ago, or long ago. Of the first Impromptu, the F Minor, Schumann wrote that it was “conceived in an hour of suffering as though meditating on the past.” Heck, that applies to half of all Schubert. John Daverio more recently speaks of the “unmistakable imprint of pastness … uncanny … imbued with the quality of reminiscence.” The second and third Impromptus may have been simply too beautiful, filling Jordan Hall with a rare, almost distracting gorgeousness. Some complaint, huh. But in the A-Flat Major, brusqueness offered relief, and in the B-Flat Major drama arose amid the prancing. The last of the set, same key as the first, showed banging energy yet was still largely melody-free, even as it ended with vehemence.

Nevertheless. If you’re a Rembrandt viewer who revels in also examining the details within his browns and the shades of black, beside the creamy lighting of main points, do not fail to hear Hoachen Zhang next time. To judge from the penetrating local reviews six years ago by Caldwell Titcomb and Matthew Guerrieri and the 2009 Van Cliburn competition CD the year before, Zhang has been formulating for some time his interested-in-all-lines approach. I pondered things I’ve never cared to ponder before with a young pianist, such as, “What will the next six decades or so hold for him interpretatively?” On Saturday night, all of his artistry sounded somehow better, more engrossing and less didactic, than the similar nifty equal voicing and inner-line exposures from Russell Sherman long ago and then (say) Andrew Rangell the decade after. Their spotlighting pointed from a penlight: check out this subtle canon you never heard before. I like that sort of thing plenty, but Zhang’s was more thorough and hence more interesting.

Anyway, if you are the sort of consumer who tracks the most promising under-30 superhuman keyboard entrants, now include Zhang’s name alongside Albright, Buniatishvili, de la Salle, Grosvenor, Kholodenko, Levit, Li, Lisiecki, Trifonov, Tao, Wang, plus all those I’m unaware of. I will want to hear Haochen Zhang playing anything.
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