BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist Zhang Zuo made her Wigmore Hall debut last Monday with a programme pairing late Schubert to early Schumann. Two pieces close in history (written just over 10 years from each other) but miles apart in temperament. However, under Zuo’s fingers, all seemed youthful and attacked with significant energy – almost to the point of seeming nervy, even though she has become a distinguished performer in both China and Europe.
Beginning with the Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Schumann’s ‘carnival prank’ inspired by his short time in Vienna, Zuo was lost in the piece’s hedonistic festival character. In the Allegro first movement, she raced away with the triple meter, with darting fingers summoning a cacophony of notes. The more introspective Romanze, on the other hand, was subject to a rubato that pushed its expressive ebb and flow to breaking point. All the while, Zuo swayed and shook in ecstatic rapture. For the listener to feel likewise would have required a far greater clarity.
In contrast, Schubert’s late C minor sonata, completed a matter of weeks before his death, is a complex and particularly elegiac piece. The first movement, wandering off into distant harmonic areas, needs an especial focus on threading a line through the piece. Zuo’s playing is far too rhapsodic for this, caught up in the brilliance of individual moments. Moreover, her default mode of attack is a relentless forte – a shame, considering she is capable of a radiant sotto voce, demonstrated particularly in the third movement. This meant Zuo found it difficult to evoke the plethora of moods and characters that really animate Schubert.
Finishing with an encore of the Minuet from Bach’s first Partita, Zuo proved herself a gifted pianist possessing remarkable technical skill. She did not quite have the humility or clarity, however, to help the listener unlock her programme.