LISZT Études d’exécution transcendante (Haochen Zhang)
By Peter J Rabinowitz, Awards Issue 2023
Since sharing the Gold Medal at the Cliburn Competition in 2009, Haochen Zhang has accumulated a choice discography – but nothing that prepares us for this stunning release. We’ve come, of course, to anticipate dazzling technical prowess from contest champions; but even with today’s heightened expectations, Zhang’s fingerwork, his varied articulation and his dynamic range (especially at the quiet end) stand out. The result is a performance of unusual focus. Even in the most overwrought passages, he not only seizes on details that normally coalesce into an accompanying clatter but also gives them musical significance: he draws melodic interest from bass lines usually heeded only for their harmonic function, gauges accents in a way that intensifies emotional undercurrents and shapes inner voices to generate rich dialogue in passages that often degenerate into harangues. Add to this his kaleidoscopic range of tone, from the succulence that opens ‘Paysage’ to the sleet grey of the ominous left-hand swirls in ‘Chasse-neige’, and the cycle consequently sounds more three-dimensional than ever – and, in programmatic passages, more pictorial, too. Who else so clearly brings out the hoofbeats of the horses in ‘Mazeppa’?
Even more impressive than Zhang’s virtuosity is his quicksilver imagination. In most accounts of this score – including the newest, Yuncham Lim’s excellent debut – the first few études give listeners the general drift of the performance to come. Not so here. Zhang displays a protean persona; he can be as angular as Kemal Gekić, as plush and patient as late Bolet, as feral as Berman (his 1958 Melodiya recording – 2/76). Besides its astonishing delicacy and clarity, his ‘Feux-follets’ is notable for its rhythmic playfulness, as he expertly tosses in dabs of rubato and subtle lurches that coax out its whimsicality. But it’s followed by a ‘Vision’ so stern and hard-hearted that it takes you up short. Similarly, Zhang’s ‘Eroica’, as slow overall as any you’ll find, leads into a ‘Wilde Jagd’ so fleet you can scarcely believe it.
Most arresting of all, though, is Zhang’s willingness to take interpretative risks. Sometimes breathtaking local decisions (for example, the long pause before the final chord of ‘Chasse-neige’) leave you stunned. Sometimes a whole piece takes on a striking cast (his dreamy ‘Ricordanza’, floated with daring flexibility throughout, has moments where time seems suspended). Yet his control of musical architecture is so assured that the interventions, on whatever scale, never turn precious.
In sum, these Transcendental Études stand up to any – and stand well above most. BIS’s exceptional engineering doesn’t hurt, either. No lover of Liszt, or of 19th-century piano repertoire more generally, can afford to miss it.