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Remarkable but rough pieces from Illstyle & Peace

-- Mark J. Estren


Haochen Zhang

Some "discoveries" in Wolf Trap's "Discovery Series" aren't exactly undiscovered: Pianist Haochen Zhang, who performed Friday night at the Barns, shared the gold medal at the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition this year. But the tall, rangy 19-year-old from Shanghai showed himself master of more than a formidable technique -- and that was a discovery worth making.

Zhang opened his five-work recital with the most challenging piece, if not the most technically difficult: Beethoven's second-to-last sonata, No. 31 in A-flat. This early romantic work, essentially a fantasia, needs more than a quiet, gentle touch at the start and effortless arpeggios throughout -- although Zhang provided those. He also captured the work's richness and subtlety, combining easy rubato that was not merely gestural with judicious use of the sustaining pedal. This work requires thought as well as technique, and Zhang offered plenty of both.

Mason Bates's "White Lies for Lomax," written for the 2007 Van Cliburn competition as a tribute to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, was quite a contrast: Fun to hear and apparently to play, it favors the keyboard's upper and lower extremes in a disjointed structure that is almost rhythmic and almost jazzy.

In Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit," still one of the most spectacular showpieces in piano literature, Zhang brought elegance to the unceasing rippling motion of "Ondine" and impressively solemn tolling in the left hand to "Le Gibet," although a sense of eeriness was lacking. The fiendishly difficult "Scarbo" became an orgy of grotesquerie as Zhang surmounted the unrelenting crescendos and double-note scales with relish -- overmastering the Yamaha piano, whose bass was not as clearly resonant as it might have been.

After intermission, Zhang gave Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel a subtle, well-modulated performance that began with delicacy but brought plenty of power to the more muscular variations -- although here the pianist's foot-tapping and occasional vocalizing were periodically distracting.

Liszt's "Spanish Rhapsody" ended the recital spectacularly, with filigree fingerwork almost too fast to see and enough chordal strength to pound the recalcitrant instrument into submission. An encore of a Chinese folk song in Lisztian display mode capped the lengthy concert with notes that sparkled like fireworks.

-- Mark J. Estren


François-Frédéric Guy

François-Frédéric Guy began a complete traversal of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas on Friday night at La Maison Française. The schedule of nine concerts over nine days, with a two-day break in the middle, is an epic feat of concentration and endurance, and that is just for the listener. Guy played the Beethoven cycle twice last year, in Monaco and Paris, in the same, mostly chronological sequence. That ordering creates, in his words, an "immense crescendo," a stylistically driven motor that powers him through the exhausting task.

In keeping with that idea of developmental accretion, Guy began the cycle with a soft, understated performance of the three sonatas of Op. 2. It was Beethoven imbued with many subtle colors and lyric phrasing, drawn from the pianist's poetic fantasy, often with a quiet rumbling of inner melancholy. In the mixing of his color palette, Guy relied perhaps too much on the sustaining pedal, blurring the trio of the rather fast third movement in No. 1, for example, into a cloud.

While the first sonata seemed the least polished, No. 2 had a technically brilliant first movement, with right-hand roulades light as a feather, and a grand, steady slow movement positioned more or less as the recital's centerpiece. A slight uncertainty about one passage in the development of No. 3's first movement unsettled Guy momentarily, but he recovered to give an unforgettable rendition of the second movement, with exquisitely voiced melodic interchanges in the crossing of the left hand. The trills at the end of the fourth movement were a flawless whirr of seamless oscillation.

-- Charles T. Downey

This complete cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas continues at La Maison Française through Nov. 22.

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