Noah Zhou at St Mary’s

Tuesday 5 January 4.00 pm

Noah Zhou (piano)

Schubert: Sonata in A D959 Allegro-Andantino-Scherzo:Allegro vivace Trio:Un poco più lento-Rondo:Allegretto/Presto

Rachmaninov: Sonata in B flat minor Op 36-_

Quite extraordinary playing by Noah Zhou at St Mary’s.An Ealing lad helped by the indomitable Eileen Rowe via her trust for young musicians.
A maturity and a poetic sense of wonderment of a story that was unfolding from his wonderfully flexible hands.Like a sculptor moulding the sounds for the poetic meaning within this box of wires and hammers.Who knows where his fantasy will take us and I get the feeling that for him too it is a voyage of magical discovery.

Opening with the Schubert A major Sonata D.959 part of the great trilogy that Schubert penned in the last year of his short life

Schubert had been struggling with syphilis since 1822–23, and suffered from weakness, headaches and dizziness. However, he seems to have led a relatively normal life until September 1828,and probably began sketching the sonatas sometime around the spring months of 1828; the final versions were written in September. These months also saw the appearance of the Drei Klavierstucke D.946 ,the Mass in E flat D.950, the String Quintet D.956, and the songs published posthumously as the Schwanengesang collection (D. 957 and D. 965A), among others.The final sonata was completed on September 26, and two days later, Schubert played from the sonata trilogy at an evening gathering in Vienna.In a letter to Probst (one of his publishers), dated October 2, 1828, Schubert mentioned the sonatas amongst other works he had recently completed and wanted to publish.However, Probst was not interested in the sonatas,and by November 19, Schubert was dead.In the following year, Schubert’s brother sold the sonatas to another publisher, Anton Diabelli,who would only publish them about ten years later, in 1838 or 1839.Schubert had intended the sonatas to be dedicated to Hummel ,a pupil of Mozart, whom he greatly admired.However, by the time the sonatas were published in 1839, Hummel was dead, and Diabelli, the new publisher, decided to dedicate them instead to Schumann, who had praised many of Schubert’s works in his critical writings.

Noah immediately opened the Sonata with great nobility but also deeply expressive and his intelligent architectural understanding allowed him to hold the movement together but without sacrificing any of the ravishing details.There was a throbbing sense of yearning and wonderment with some very expressive tenor voicing and his hands almost like rubber seemed to mould the sounds with naturalness and ease.It was Dame Fanny Waterman who confided to me that pianists do not seem to mould these days as Curzon ,Solomon or pianists of the Matthay school used to.Maybe in the quest for technical perfection the searching for sounds and colours has been neglected as pianos have become ever more brilliant and resilient.

The difference between music that talks and music that just astonishes.It is strange how the Chinese pianists seem to have the need to communicate and to tell a story.It was Fou Ts’ong who used to enlighten us in Rome with his comparison between Chinese poetry and that in the works of Chopin.It is the same soul and most beautifully expressed by both a Pole and a Chinese.Ts’ong created a sensation at one of the first Chopin Competitions in Warsaw and people could not understand how he could play the Mazukas with such understanding.They are,after all, miniature masterpieces in which all the deep Polish sentiments of nostalgia and longing for the homeland are expressed.Lang Lang too before his commercial success used to play every note with such pained suffering.’You can not play every note as if someone is sticking a knife into you’ exclaimed John Streets to the sixteen year old Graham Johnson at our chamber music lessons at the RAM.’Oh yes you can and must’added the actress Janet Suzmann in an evening of poetry and song that Graham had enchanted us with at the Wigmore Hall this time last year.

It is just this idea of making the music speak that was so enthralling in Noah’s playing today.There was a wonderfully atmospheric coda to the first movement creating clouds of mysterious sounds.

A touching sense of desolation and bewilderment in his story telling of the Andantino with such purity in the melodic line and his great sense of balance allowing the details of the left hand to be heard so clearly and tenderly.There were startling eruptions in the middle section with the pleading recitativi answered so decisively.A whole operatic drama was envisioned evaporating and leading to the reappearance of the opening theme this time commented on with truly magical whispered comments.A remarkable sense of control of sound where every finger was an independent instrument ready to follow this young man’s poignant fantasy.The Scherzo burst in with almost ländler simplicity.The lyrical Trio with it melancholic legato horn melody commented on by such impish staccato interjections from the orchestra in Noah’s hands.A beautifully flowing Allegretto that reminded me of the nostalgic joy to be found in Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture .It was allowed to flow with such ease and with such an achingly nostalgic ending.Resolved with a Presto of a fleetness and dynamic play of lightness and the feeling that it was all only a dream as we came full circle to the majestic final chords.A fascinating journey in Noah’s hands where my imagination was simply stimulated by his.

Surely this is the real meaning of an interpreter who is just the medium between the composer and the listener.I quote from Tortelier’s marvellous book that I just picked up again ‘e voilà’as he would have said:’I feel that the instrumentalist is a kind of musical storyteller.Music speaks from the great masters to the performer,and through the process of telling a story his playing becomes inbued with life and character’

Enthralling Rachmaninov where I was made aware for the first time of the dark brooding of this rather overplayed work.Visionary indeed. Here was the same sense of discovery and wonderment with such subtle shading making the music really speak.Some sumptuous sounds and a sense of feeling for the inner colours but playing with a simplicity and directness that was quite mesmerising.Evelyne Beresowsky had bewitched us just a month ago in the same hall with this same sonata and did not think I would be easily as overwhelmed as I was again today.His overall vision and total dedication was quite remarkable as he led us to the breathtaking conclusion.All this in an empty hall where the interplay between audience and performer is usually an essential ingredient of this virtuosistic work.Horowitz had shown us the way in his Indian summer return to the concert platform when he astonished and bewitched the world with his rediscovery and demonic performances of what had been a much neglected work.Since then the sonata has been rediscovered and is understandably the goal of all aspiring young pianists.But it is a rare that young artists can bring it to life and keep us on the edge of our seats as Noah and Evelyne have demonstrate this past month at St Mary’s

In this week when the great Fou Ts’ong was taken from us by the virus here is a young man with that same soul and sense of story telling that makes us aware of just how essential music is in these deeply disturbing times

Born in London, British-Chinese pianist Noah Zhou has since established himself as one of the leading talents of his generation. He began learning piano at age 5 with Tra Nguyen before moving on to study with Hilary Coates. Currently, he holds the full fees Margaret Kitchin Scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music where he studies with the Emeritus Head of Keyboard, Christopher Elton. He is also generously supported by the Eileen Rowe Musical Trust, a fund headed by Vanessa Latarche, Head of Keyboard at the Royal College of Music. 

In 2018, Noah was awarded the prestigious Duet Prize for Best Young Instrumentalist by the Royal Philharmonic Society of Great Britain, before going on to be awarded the top prize at the first edition of Coach House Pianos’ UK National School Piano Competition a year later. He was awarded the Third prize and Bronze medal in Kiev at the 2019 International Horowitz Piano Competition (edition XII), where he was also awarded the Jury’s Special Prize for the best interpretation of a solo Ukrainian Work. Following this, he was invited to perform live on the Ukrainian Radio Channel ‘Aristocrat’, and his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 was featured on national Ukrainian Television. Later that same year he was also named as one of six finalists in the Manchester International Concerto Competition (edition VI).   

Noah frequently performs in concerts, and has appeared at many venues all over Europe, including London’s St John’s Smith Square, Southbank Royal Festival Hall, BBC Hoddinott Hall and Steinway Hall (UK), Kiev’s Philharmonia Hall (Ukraine), Gothenburg’s Operan and Konserthuset (Sweden), Budapest’s Danube Palace (Hungary) and Bayreuth’s Steingraeber Kammermusik-Saal (Germany). He was worked with many orchestras, including the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine, the Danube Symphony Orchestra and the Manchester Camerata, and similarly has performed under the batons of conductors such as Vitaliy Protasov, András Deák, Ronald Corp and Stephen Threlfall. As a growing talent, Noah has also participated in the masterclasses of many eminent figures of the musical world, including Leonel Morales, Andreas Weber, Pavel Gililov, Barbara Szczepanska, Pascal Devoyon, Craig Sheppard, Stanislav Ioudenitch, Imogen Cooper and Andreas Froehlich, to name a few.  


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