by Julia Meredith
Ingenue or Ninja? (not really!)
With her pale oval face, simple red frock and neatly-tied raven’s wing hair, Lauren Zhang came onstage looking like an obedient child about to play for the end-of-term concert.
True, she carried no music, and had a purposeful calm that suggested a lack of ingenue nerves, but few could have imagined what we were in store for – unless they had background knowledge of the programme, which included some of the most formidably complex, demanding and ambitious pieces in the concert pianist’s repertoire.
Opening with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op.101 this facade of meek competence could have continued; of all that lay ahead, this was probably the piece that made the fewest physical demands on a performer, though there may well be those who’d disagree with me. Lauren played it with all the immaculate technique, weight and shading it required; the serenity in her features unreflective of the passion in her fingers. At times she seemed so self-absorbed, she could have been in a room on her own.
Well. That all changed as she launched into Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini. To quote the programme notes, Brahms’s ‘finger exercises’, as he referred to them, have ‘never been surpassed in difficulty or originality’. It’s a fiendish task for any pianist to take on – let alone one, who at 17, is not yet old enough to vote! Being familiar with this work, I found myself holding my breath as she began. It’s technically relentlessly demanding, requiring not just immaculate fingerwork but physical strength of a high order. What possessed this little blossom to attempt such heavy lifting? I really didn’t want her to fail.
How to put it? She did not fail. Somehow retaining the inscrutable self-possession she’d shown at the start, this small figure danced up and down the keyboard executing lightning-fast changes of direction, tempo and mood – sometimes executing double-octave arpeggios at a dizzying rate, sometimes belabouring the keyboard to extract deep booming chimes out of the quivering strings, then milliseconds later playing as delicately as though from miles away through the mist… you really had to be there to believe this semi-child was wrestling so weighty, even macho, a piece into compliance. When she stood to receive our applause, she hadn’t even developed what the Victorians would have called a ladylike glow.
The second half was a more intimate experience. Chopin’s Andante Spianto and Grande Polonaise felt like calm waters after a hurricane of sound. Sensitive, resonant, we all basked in the lyrical sweetness she conveyed.
Ravel’s La Valse is a more disconcerting work than its name suggests. Written after WW1, it bears a current of unease that flows beneath the whirling rhythms of the waltz, as though recognizing that Vienna (the piece’s original pre-war title) would thereafter be linked with carnage. La Valse is a glittering denial of the horrors – which yet emerge in Ravel’s composition, and are given full, sinister expression in Lauren’s playing. Swooping between intoxicating froth and violence, she captured a sense of the corruption of the society in the runup to the war, making it an uncomfortable but evocative experience.
Gaspard de la nuit, also by Ravel, is an impressionist piece – but not all sparkling water and joie de vivre. Titled The Water Spirit, The Gallows and The Gremlin, it’s disconcerting, full of nervous energy – and no less technically exacting. Programme notes again, ‘Ravel composed what he hoped to be considered the apex of piano virtuosity’ and this time, I wasn’t holding my breath. A safe pair of hands … but what a young head to absorb and reflect the emotional depth charge! The final lengthy applause reflected our shared delight in seeing the unfurling of what promises be a phenomenal career.
Many thanks to Young Classical Artists Trust for bringing this precocious talent into our own St James.