Fire, Fun and Elegance in Hao Zi Yoh’s Pianism at Cranleigh Arts Centre

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Schumann, Prokofiev, Chopin – Hao Zi Yoh (piano): Reviewed from the 4.11.2020 live stream from Cranleigh Arts Centre, Surrey. (JB)

Hao Zi Yoh at Cranleigh Arts Centre

Mozart – Sonata No.10 in C Major K.330

Schumann – Kinderszenen Op.15 ‘Scenes from Childhood’

Prokofiev – Sonata No.3 in A minor Op.28

Chopin – Mazurkas Op.59 No. 1-3; Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58

I am delighted that the Keyboard Charitable Trust and Hao Zi Yoh herself, invited me to this extraordinary recital (available click here).  She has been giving masterclasses to the scientists of Imperial College (IC), and I am only sorry I haven’t been able to be present at one of these. As yet. There is something startlingly scientific in her own playing, so she must surely be the ideal tutor, speaking the same language as it were, to the ladies and gents of that venerable institution. A quick word on science itself before we become more confused on the misrepresentations of science. By definition science is as much about what do not know as well as what we partially know. All scientific answers are temporary until better evidence comes along. The search for answers must therefore be permanently ongoing as one scientific path (or paths) leads to others.

Cranleigh Arts Centre in the heart of Surrey is a first for me. Their website is so inviting, I wanted immediately to take a trip there and experience the promised friendly café and drinks bar, the exhibitions, the 200-seat auditorium, the 50-seat studio space. Enrich, entertain and inspire is their trinity. What better aspirations? The building was originally a Victorian Village School (1847-1966). Major conversion work in 1997/8 attracted Lottery money (thank god the Lottery Committee sometimes get things right!) There are four paid staff and scores of volunteers, most of them local, to cover film, theatre, music, dance, comedy (Harry Secombe was their first President) pottery making and other fine arts. Waverley Borough Council and Cranleigh Parish Council are observers at Board meetings and assist with maintenance. In a good year they get Arts Council grants too. My wish to make a visit, was of course sabotaged by lockdown.

Cranleigh Arts Centre

O yes, we’re in the middle of nowhere with Guildford our nearest station says Stephen Dennison, former Board Member and now volunteer organiser of music events (Board members step down after 4 years): I asked Hao Zi to take a train from Waterloo to Guildford and then met her with my car. It is then another thirty-minute ride to the picturesque village of Cranleigh. Pub grub available too just opposite the Centre.

The Mozart Sonata No.10 in C K.330 is one of his best known. And best loved. For Hermann Abert (still the greatest authority on Mozart) it is a salon piece, probably written for a pupil. Hao Zi Yoh seems to agree. She makes her audience her pupils: what do you think of this? is served up in every carefully shaped phrase. The opening Allegro moderato is exactly that: cheerful but unpretentious. (How often have you suffered when this is trotted out overly stated?)

Her Andante cantabile sings all right in passing from F major to F minor (a bold adventure for the young Mozart) then shockingly to A flat major – the related key of F minor. Some surgical forensic work from Hao Zi’s fingers. I can understand how the IC scientists must love her. (Those tonality changes too often get scrambled over.)

Her Allegretto is hardly etto (small scale) at all. Her right hand sings out like the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la, plucked along by a left hand plummy pizzicato. Arresting and charming, yet you are left with a feeling that you might not want to meet this beautiful, tiny young woman on a dark night! She knows where she is going. But you don’t, until she shows you. It is only the first time tonight there will be an experience to take home with you.

Schumann wrote some thirty melodies or songs from childhood memories, from which he selected thirteen for Kinderszenen. This presents the same challenge as a song cycle, but this time it is the piano alone with no words to help the delivery along. The piano alone paints the aural picture. Some of the pieces last less than a minute. So blink, and you’ve lost it. Unsurprisingly, Hao Zi shows herself as a genial quick-change artist. She can become another pianist on command. Here was, after all, Schumann’s own instrument. His sound thereof instantly recognisable.

Number 8 – By the Fireside (Am Kamin) must be the best known. Its arching (used in the sense of tortuous) pain, has been used so effectively by so many moviemakers who probably don’t even know the name of Robert Schumann. Romanticism never came more richly than this And Hao Zi doesn’t disappoint. But with not the faintest hint of sentimentality. All the more laudable that she should deliver the sentiment without the slush. That surgical skill will be most appreciated by her IC pupils. Or you and me.

One of my own favourites is No.10 Fast zu ernst (Almost too serious) where the serious is tongue in cheek – unusual for Schumann, but it is always a pleasure when the greatest reveal an unexpected side. A trick which again, our Malaysian girl picks up on.

Number 3 Hasche-Mann (Blind Man’s Bluff) is pure fun. And won’t leave you in any doubt about Schumann’s sense of humour. Or Hao Zi’s. The finale, Number 13 Der Dichter spricht (The Poet Speaks) is in restricted territory out of which Schumann plucks a G major melody. The sun comes out. Hao Zi tells Stephen at an interval exchange that this is one of her favourites. You hear that too in her performance.

Prokofiev’s A minor Sonata No.3 proved to be the pianistic firework display it always is from Hao Zi’s clearly stormy Allegro tempestoso opening to her suitably (musically) choppy Poco più mosso ending. It was first heard from the composer’s own fingers in St Petersburg in 1918, is in rather loose sonata form, and lasts a mere 8 minutes. Melody and percussion combine particularly nicely in the third (sub-)movement, and was that a tarantella in the finale?

Hao Zi had entered herself for the Warsaw Chopin Competition, which has been moved forward to Spring of next year. She chose tonight to play the three mazurkas which make up Opus 59. The first which is in A minor, is highly chromatic. It was whispered – almost prayerfully – so a nice contrast to Prokofiev. Number 2 is full of glitter. The finale is not so much a mazurka as an oberek – which is a much faster folk dance than the mazurka. In Chopin’s youth Poland was occupied by the Russians. (His mother was Polish, his dad, French). The oberek was always danced in brilliantly coloured costumes. The steps require astonishing athleticism from the male partner and eloquence and support from the female. Dazzling to watch (see on YouTube). These dances are heartfelt by Chopin. And his mother’s tradition. Don’t let that stop you watching these dances. Hao Zi makes for a perfect orchestra. The word oberek is related to spinning. And that is exactly what both dancers are called upon to do.  The pianist has a mere two hands.

The Chopin B minor Sonata Op.58 owes everything to Beethoven. True, it remains quintessentially Chopin, but the cloth from which it is spun is Beethoven’s. The opening Allegro maestoso must be lively, but above all, noble, with noteworthy dignity. Suddenly B minor (solemn) becomes B major (hold your head higher than you ever held it before). Then shockingly back to solemnity (B minor). I believe the Shigeru Kawai piano helped these huge demands. Certainly, under Hao Zi’s fingers we were treated to enthralling commitment. She had just convinced us in the oberek (called mazurka on the programme). Now comes an authoritarianism previously unheard in music.

Another comparison: Sullivan at the end of first act of The Mikado has been trotting along in light, pleasing, Viennese operetta tunes when without notice he transmutes into grand opera at the entrance of Katisha: Your revels cease! Pray assist me all of you! The elderly spinster condemns her betraying lover, Nanki-Poo, who is just in process of marrying Yum-Yum. Katisha curses the celebrants and scatters them left and right as the curtain falls. Musically, Sullivan takes us from the language of in the Orpheus in the Underworld to Götterdämmerung in seconds, rather than minutes.   

The Scherzo is so fast, if you blink, (again) you’ll miss it. (Molto vivace) E flat goes to B major for the trio section and back to E flat for the ritornello. Did you even have time to take note of that distant, foreign modulation? We certainly had our breath taken away. Another Hao Zi Yoh speciality it seems.

The Largo also deals related keys. From B major to E major. And back again to B major. Finally comes the Presto non tanto – fast, but don’t overdo it. Hao Zi lets us in on her nervousness that she might miss the train.

No one, I think will ever perform this sonata as well as Percy Grainger. His 1925 recording on 78s, was the first commercial enterprise.  All the same, Hao Zi Yoh is worthy to stand alongside him.   

An encore of a lullaby of Erik Satie brought the evening to a reassuringly quiet end.

Please don’t take my word for it. This recital can be enjoyed on Cranleigh Arts Centre’s website (click here) where you will also find information on other upcoming programmes.

Jack Buckley

For Hao Zi Zoh’s website click here.

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