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MUSIC REVIEW

Zhang brings power and restraint to Jordan Hall

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / December 6, 2010

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For pianists, repertoire choice is at least partial self-advertisement, and Haochen Zhang’s program for his Friday Celebrity Series recital at Jordan Hall signaled poetic temperament as much as technical prowess. The first half, after all, was devoted to all four Ballades of Frédéric Chopin — hard to play, harder to elucidate. Zhang opened the G-minor first Ballade in unusually ruminative territory, the 6/4 theme played as a slow, searching waltz — which then gave way to torrents of impetuous momentum. That was the pattern for the rest of the Ballades as well: all-or-nothing drama, long-breathed melodies given intricate, sometimes quirky line readings, offset by carefully rationed doses of precise, headlong daring.

Zhang (the youngest-ever first-prize medalist at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, winning last year at 19) has a distinctive tone — a clean-edged, weighted brightness — that he maintains with consummate consistency across a wide dynamic range. Instead of a varied palette, the effect is rather of a single, malleable, almost palpable mass of sound, dialed up or down as the phrase demands. Zhang balanced it with a remarkably sure sense of pacing and a canny use of quiet and silence, setting the table for his bursts of virtuosity.

He was at his best when sound and timing were in moment-to-moment play, restrained stretches of music suddenly turning on a dime. The first and fourth Ballades were particularly rich playgrounds for such audacious intimacy and outburst; the middle two were slightly more distant and formal. The same dichotomy could be felt in the Opus 118 Klavierstücke of Johannes Brahms. The playing was never less than assured, but Zhang’s universal tone was sometimes prosaic: Brahms’s late-period meditations sounded almost too sure of themselves. But in those pieces when Zhang’s controlled touch and dramatic conservation of pace and power could take precedence — the famous A-major Intermezzo, the mercurial G-minor Ballade, the enigmatic E-flat-minor finale — the result was high-polish eloquence.

Zhang closed with a connoisseur’s showpiece, Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1, Chopinesque textures reworked into a modernist, pealing bacchanal of Latin rhythms. Zhang dispatched it with flair; the holy trinity of piano competitions — speed, brawn, accuracy — was dazzlingly in evidence. But his encores immediately turned back inward: Robert Schumann’s familiar “Träumerei,’’ and an especially sensitive reading of Chopin’s posthumously published C-sharp-minor Nocturne. Zhang is a pianist with ample reserves of power whose imagination seems nonetheless most kindled by subtle delicacy.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

HAOCHEN ZHANG, piano Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Jordan Hall, Friday