Jessica Zhu/Cellophony, Wigmore Hall (4/5)


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The Independent Culture

Anyone wanting to test the mettle of British classical music’s up-and-coming young stars might begin by checking out the annual parade of talent put on at Christmas by the Park Lane Group.

This year’s parade opened with a Wigmore Hall showcase for the talents of an outstanding young Chinese-American pianist, and for the versatility of the eight-cello ensemble known as Cellophony.

Sitting in a semicircle and constantly changing their positions, Cellophony look like a strict democracy, but their group discipline is immaculate. They brought a luxuriously warm sound to arrangements of three Schubert Lieder, with ‘Standchen’ lending itself ideally to such treatment. Then they repeated the stunt they pulled at the Southbank last Christmas, delivering Berio’s daunting ‘Korot’ with seemingly effortless ease. Expressly written for cello octet and trading on finely-calibrated harmonics, this work is an essay in whispered sound and pregnant silence; sometimes it suggests a radio tuning between frequencies, but its contours are diamond-sharp and its textures recall Bartok’s; Cellophony made it the occasion for some dazzling virtuosity.

Then the stage was cleared for Jessica Zhu, a slip of a girl from Texas who currently combines studies at the Guildhall with performances in churches, schools, and hospitals. Nobody could accuse her of not taking risks, though one of the works she played – Manuel de Falla’s ‘Fantasia Baetica’ – proved irredeemably long-winded. Her opening gambit was Haydn’s ‘Sonata in E flat major’, where, drawing out its symphonic elements, she expertly sculpted the first movement and gave the second a warm and honeyed tone. But she couldn’t control the Wigmore piano’s big and plummy sound sufficiently to allow Haydn’s inventive and exploratory quality to emerge.

She did better with Rachmaninov’s majestic ‘Corelli’ variations – she’ll undoubtedly play them with more authority in years to come – but what she achieved with Liszt’s tone-poem ‘Vallee d’Obermann’ was magnificent. Starting with the serene descending theme, she unerringly found the right sonority for every phase in this dramatic landscape-evocation, creating an almost tangible stillness in the meditative sections, and thunder at the climaxes. Then the cellos came back to delight (with an arrangement of Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ prelude), to intrigue (with some transcribed Bach), and to send us out into the night with their own version of Wieniawski’s fiddle fireworks.