Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonata in b.
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses:
Années de pèlerinage:
Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este.
No. 2. Légende No. 1,
St. François d’Assise:
La Prédication aux oiseaux
Haiou Zhang (pn)
HÄNSSLER 98.625 (74:14)
Liszt has been dead for 125 years now, yet, despite the mythologizing that has come to define him, the question as to whether he was truly a great composer as opposed to a beloved, albeit cult-like, personality has yet to be settled. Even in his own lifetime, his reputation as the greatest piano virtuoso of his age was widely accepted, as was the influence of his musical thinking and teaching on other pianists and composers. But the critics of Liszt’s own time—colorful wordsmiths all—as well as our own more cautious, sober-minded contemporary critics have injected enough doubt into the debate that one needn’t feel it’s heresy to question Liszt’s worth as a composer. Among the many invectives penned against Liszt, my favorite has to be this 1882 entry in London’s
newspaper, which held that “if Liszt’s symphonic poem,
, were really heard in the Hungarian struggle, it was a wonder that the enemies of the Magyar race did not run away sooner, for we can hardly imagine any human beings of any race or color who could listen without terror and dismay to such unearthly sounds.” More serious criticism of Liszt’s music has focused on its lack of formal discipline and less than professionally polished—indeed, sometimes crude—craftsmanship. He was not, for example, a natural-born orchestrator, and was not reluctant to turn to others, primarily Joachim Raff, for help in orchestrating his scores.
Pianist Haiou Zhang’s Liszt recital, like many another, hitches the composer’s grandiloquent B-Minor Sonata to a sampling of pieces drawn from larger sets or collections.
, for instance, is the seventh in order of 10 pieces collected under the title of “Poetic and Religious Harmonies.” The
No. 2 comes from a set of 19 such works, it being the most popular of the set. Three books make up the
Années de pèlerinage
(Years of Pilgrimage) trilogy, and from the third book or “Third Year,” composed of seven pieces, comes the fourth in order,
Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este
(The Fountains of the Villa d’Este). Of the
, there are only two, the first titled “St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds.” Between Liszt’s St. Francis preaching to the birds and Mahler’s St. Anthony preaching to the fishes, one wonders if these canonized clerics hadn’t given up on their human parishioners.
Some pianists have made of Liszt’s sonata if not their entire career, at least a signature of their repertoire. Argerich, Arrau, Bolet, Brendel, Horowitz, and Watts come to mind. Many others, too, have played it with great fanfare and flair but managed not to make a fetish of it. Yundi Li, whose recording I’ve not heard, left Adrian Corleonis searching for superlatives in
27:3. My own two preferred versions have been slightly older recordings by Pogorelich (1990) and Pletnev (1997). Interestingly, both arrive at the end within two seconds of each other, 33:44 and 33:46, respectively; yet, interpretively, they are polar opposites—Pogorelich, like Argerich, given to displays of emotional intensity, dramatic urgency, and unpredictable surprises; Pletnev, dispassionate and aloof but highly focused and purposeful, projecting a sense of command and control.
Chinese-born Haiou Zhang is not a pianist I’ve encountered before, nor, I suspect, is he widely known in the U.S. Nothing in the CD notes or credits indicates that this is his debut album, but aside from a Beethoven “Emperor” with Kerry Stratton leading the Slovak Sinfonietta, which seems to be available only as a download file, it’s the only other recording by him I find listed. I have a feeling that’s about to change.
Playing a Bechstein, model D 282, Zhang is nothing short of phenomenal. Compared to Pogorelich and Pletnev, Zhang’s reading of the sonata is fast, 31:56, though not nearly as fast as Pollini at 29:08. But the notes fly from Zhang’s fingers as sparks from flint. There is a steel-like strength in his playing that not merely surmounts every technical obstacle but makes of it an effortless lope. And yet, wherever Liszt pauses to paint musical portraits of romantic dalliances past and present, and dreams of passions yet to come Zhang’s tone turns pliant, plaintive, and tender.
With no less care, flair, and finesse does Zhang approach the other Liszt items in his recital. Horowitz, I’m sure, would smile approvingly at Zhang’s bell-ringing tintinnabulations in his arrangement of the
No. 2, and rarely have I heard the birds sermonized with such sweet-tongued tweeting as here in Zhang’s St. Francis preaching to his feathered flock.
All of this is aided and abetted by a recording of such crystalline clarity as to dispel any sense that an electronic reproduction stands between you and Zhang’s piano. I will admit without any excuses that Liszt is not and never has been one of my favorite composers, though being the completist I am, I did collect Leslie Howard’s encyclopedic multivolume Liszt edition on Hyperion. But if I had to choose only one recording by which Liszt’s solo piano music would be represented in my collection, there is a strong possibility that this would be it. For Liszt lovers, Zhang’s recital is indispensible.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Haiou Zhang plays Liszt with sympathy, affection, and technique to burn. Although Liszt allowed his interpreters textual leeway, the composer also took lots of trouble to notate his scores with pinpointed specificity. It is to his credit that Zhang trusts Liszt, yet is not rigidly literal. For example, he's one of the few pianists to truly bring out the marcato quality of the right-hand chords in Funérailles' opening pages, and he does so by paying careful heed to Liszt's pedal markings and observing rests that others often play through. Zhang's central octave episode adeptly emulates Horowitz's steamrolling hands, although Arnaldo Cohen and Jorge Bolet deliver superior paragraphic sweep and harmonic perception.
Conversely, the B minor sonata's notorious octave passage in the exposition benefits from Zhang's harmonic accentuation. In fact, the entire performance is impressively fluid and well-integrated; in time, one hopes that Zhang will project the Quasi Adagio's lyrical decorative flourishes with more affirmation and purposeful shape, or flesh out Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este's coloristic patterns with Arrau's burnished clarity.
Comparative listening also reveals Volodos offering more caressing nuance and poetry than Zhang in the St. Francis Legende, plus superior inner-voice characterization and witty timing throughout Horowitz's tour-de-force rewrite of the Second Rhapsody (to say nothing of Horowitz's own, incomparable 1953 live recording). All in all, there's no denying Haiou Zhang's Lisztian potential, and if you can deal with Hänssler's slightly boomy sonics (thankfully, not quite on the overly resonant level of their Gerhard Oppitz releases), you'll certainly enjoy the best of what this young Chinese pianist has to offer here.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
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