Give the hands a hand

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos -

Santa Fe’s fall con­cert sea­son got un­der way this past week with a cel­e­bra­tion of the pi­ano, thanks to a pair of well-at­tended con­certs that spot­lighted the in­stru­ment on con­sec­u­tive days. One in­tro­duced a pi­anist who is poised at the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer, the other a celebrity who is fly­ing higher than any other clas­si­cal mu­si­cian of his gen­er­a­tion.

First up was Haochen Zhang, the co-gold medal­ist of the 2009 Van Cliburn In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion, who ap­peared as soloist with the Santa Fe Sym­phony (Steven Smith con­duct­ing) at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Sept. 19. The fol­low­ing evening, the Santa Fe Con­cert As­so­ci­a­tion pre­sented Lang Lang in a solo recital at Santa Fe Opera.

Zhang must have felt a bit of pres­sure, un­der the cir­cum­stances, but pres­sure is no stranger to any­one who has climbed to the top of the lad­der at the Cliburn com­pe­ti­tion or, for that mat­ter, at the China In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion of 2007, which he also did. His Cliburn tri­umph at the age of 19 was per­haps tem­pered be­cause it was the first time in the com­pe­ti­tion’s his­tory that the gold medal was shared by two com­peti­tors. Pi­anophiles were de­pend­ably atwit­ter dis­put­ing the com­pe­ti­tion’s re­sults, but I don’t see how many mu­sic lovers could be less than im­pressed by the snip­pets of his prize-win­ning per­for­mance of Prokofiev’s Sec­ond Pi­ano Con­certo that are in­cluded in the re­cently re­leased film Sur­prise in Texas, the lat­est in­stall­ment of di­rec­tor Peter Rosen’s doc­u­men­taries about the Cliburn com­pe­ti­tion.

When this slen­der young­ster walked on­stage at the Len­sic, one won­dered how he could pos­si­bly do com­bat with Rach­mani­noff’s Pi­ano Con­certo No. 3. Pi­anists cite it as a bench­mark for tech­ni­cal whiz-bang; less fre­quently men­tioned is the sheer stamina re­quired by this piece, in which the soloist is ac­tive for prac­ti­cally the en­tirety of its 40 min­utes’ du­ra­tion. This turned out to be a non­is­sue. Zhang had the piece firmly in hand and even de­cided to em­ploy the “big” first-move­ment cadenza, an al­ter­na­tive to the shorter and more el­e­gant cadenza Rach­mani­noff orig­i­nally wrote and which he him­self al­ways em­ployed in per­for­mance and record­ing. The big cadenza didn’t be­come pop­u­lar un­til Van Cliburn cham­pi­oned it in the wake of his tri­umph at the In­ter­na­tional Tchaikovsky Com­pe­ti­tion in 1959; his pow­er­ful, bronze tone seemed cus­tom-made for the sten­to­rian chords of this af­ter­thought of the com­poser’s. Still, some pi­anists play the ver­sion Rach­mani­noff clearly pre­ferred, and I do wish Zhang had, since I sus­pect his strength lies in the di­rec­tion of lyri­cism, while the big cadenza im­poses a more ath­letic feel on the whole con­certo. In­deed, he seemed not to pro­duce a par­tic­u­larly large tone, and the pi­ano was oc­ca­sion­ally sub­sumed within the thick­ness of the or­ches­tral tex­ture. By way of con­trast, he played as an en­core an ar­range­ment of a Chi­nese folk song in which rustling fig­u­ra­tion rip­pled with eggshell del­i­cacy.

At this point, Zhang is work­ing from a well-cul­ti­vated base of tech­ni­cal fi­nesse. He is 20 years old, and as he moves for­ward he will no doubt con­tinue to ex­plore the col­oris­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties avail­able in the voic­ing of chords, the ex­pan­sion of his dy­namic range (which, on the pi­ano, is largely the art of il­lu­sion), and the minute shad­ings that will make his pas­sage work sparkle even more brightly than it al­ready does. His ca­reer is off to a ter­rific start, and af­ter a strong per­for­mance like this, mu­sic lovers will be ea­ger to watch as his mu­si­cal per­son­al­ity crys­tal­lizes through the cru­cible of ex­pe­ri­ence.

The con­cert be­gan with a monochro­matic ren­di­tion of Paul Dukas’s fleet­ing Fan­fare for the bal­let La Péri (for brass choir), but af­ter in­ter­mis­sion the or­ches­tra pro­vided much de­light through its spir­ited per­for­mance of Dvorák’sˇ Eighth Sym­phony. Smith im­bued this sem­i­nal sym­phony with lusty en­thu­si­asm that un­der­scored its pas­toral im­pli­ca­tions, par­tic­u­larly in the lov­able rus­tic­i­ties of the third move­ment and in the ram­bunc­tious fi­nale.

Now all of 28 years old, Sony global “Brand Am­bas­sador” Lang Lang stands at the sum­mit of pro­fes­sional suc­cess, though he’s re­ally only a decade into his ca­reer. From an aes­thetic stand­point, it has been a rocky decade, and his in­tem­per­ate ap­petite for com­mer­cial­ism has drawn much hos­til­ity from crit­ics and con­cert­go­ers who are ac­cus­tomed to a less os­ten­ta­tious way of do­ing busi­ness in the clas­si­cal-mu­sic in­dus­try. I am among those who have de­plored his vul­gar­ity in the past, and I was there­fore de­lighted to see — and, more im­por­tant, to hear — how gra­ciously he com­ported him­self dur­ing the Sept. 20 recital. His pro­gram­ming was dis­tin­guished: Bach’s Par­tita No. 1, Schu­bert’s Sonata in B-flat Ma­jor (D. 960), and Chopin’s 12 Études (Op. 25).

He painted the Bach mostly in wispy wa­ter­col­ors, dol­ing out the Pre­lude and Alle­mande with hyper-ro­man­tic ru­bato and ex­tract­ing a dreamy, su­per-sweet tone from his Stein­way. In the Alle­mande, one mar­veled at his left-hand phras­ing, which was not merely stac­cato but in­stead de­tailed count­less gra­da­tions of stac­cato, with ev­ery at­tack and re­lease con­vey­ing ab­so­lute clar­ity. Fol­low­ing a ge­nially lop­ing Cor­rente and a whis­pered Sara­bande, he achieved his most as­ton­ish­ing ef­fects in the Min­uets, in which he dis­played a sense of fin­ger in­de­pen­dence that was drawn straight from Horowitz’s play­book. This is not an ap­proach that seems in­tent on re­veal­ing any­thing much about Bach, to be sure, but it is hugely im­pres­sive in what it re­veals about pi­ano play­ing, and that is an achieve­ment.

Schu­bert’s B-flat Ma­jor Sonata was the com­poser’s last, and it stands as a mon­u­ment to that which is most pri­vate and per­sonal in mu­sic. It is

Lang Lang

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