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New Classical Tracks: Pianist Haochen Zhang offers a fresh take on Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev

Haocheng Zhang Benjamin Ealovega
4min 59sec : New Classical Tracks: Haochen Zhang
15min 38sec : New Classical Tracks: Haochen Zhang (extended)

Haochen Zhang — Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 / Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 (BIS)

"I really didn't do much preparation. I think I was just lucky. And I really just thought to myself, 'I'm here to learn, I've got nothing to lose. So I don't have to worry about the results.'"

With that mindset, Chinese American pianist Haochen Zhang became a gold medalist and a first prize winner of the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. At age 19, he was one of the youngest winners in the competition. Ten years later, Haochen has just released his second recording. It features Tchaikovsky's powerful Piano Concerto No. 1 and the work he performed in the final round of the Cliburn Competition: Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2.

"This is exactly 10 years after 2009, when I won the Cliburn. There's a personal feeling to this piece that I've been performing ever since.

"It's known for being the most technically challenging piano concerto, with the crazy cadenza in the first movement and nerve-racking second movement, and so forth.

"I think what people sometimes overlook is that underneath this surface of bombastic sonority is this overwhelming virtuosity — and also the imagination and sarcasm and the wit — that is actually so refined and nuanced, compositionally speaking. When I recorded this piece, I tried to bring out as much of these aspects as possible for the listeners."

And the orchestra has an opportunity to do that as well. Their part is very inventive, very sarcastic and kind of humorous, to a certain degree. And then you guys get to go back and forth with that, right?

"Yeah, and one of the things about BIS, the label that I recorded with, is that they have what they call SACD, or Super Audio CD recording technique. When you listen to this recording you will be able to find all these intricacies in the orchestra, which you would sometimes miss in a lot of other recordings of this concerto."

What did you like about working with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra?

"I think the orchestra's earthy quality and simplistic musical nature really binds well with what I have to do on the piano. That's a surprising discovery I found when I was working with them."

Did it make a difference having a Russian conductor at the helm?

"Of course. We certainly had a very interesting and helpful discussion about the recording when he was giving me advice on how he was thinking about this piece."

What did Dima Solobodeniouk have to say? What were some of his ideas that you came to agree upon?

"One of the ideas that sticks out in my memory was not actually the Prokofiev but the Tchaikovsky concerto. Most recordings tend to approach this piece with a very heavy spirit. But what he was saying, and I totally agreed, was that this piece actually might be heavy on texture and sonority, but it's very light in spirit.

"When I was choosing the repertoire for this album, I was looking at the Prokofiev and trying to find a piece within the Russian style, but also almost fundamentally opposite in nature to the Prokofiev, sort of two opposite pillar stones in the Russian piano concerto repertoire. I want to bring that contrast to listeners by choosing these two."

To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Resources

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 (Amazon)