Rostropovich came to the Barbican as conductor last week with two prodigies - the 13-year-old pianist, Helen Huang, and the 12-year-old cellist, Han- Na Chang - in a pair of concerts. Huang was born in Japan of Chinese parents; Chang (no relation to the violin prodigy, Sarah), is Korean. Both now live in the US and both study at the Julliard School - when time permits. And this is the point: both are already embarked on such high-profile careers. Huang has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia, and Leipzig Gewandhaus; Chang with Sinopoli and the Dresden Staatskapelle, Dutoit and the Orchestre National de France, with Temirkanov and the Young Israel Philharmonic, and is now beginning a 12-concert tour in Israel. Given that both have signed exclusive recording contracts, by the ripe old age of 18, what more will there be to do? Prodigies are freaks. As Feuermann put it "probably common to all is that, as long as they are under the influence of teachers or their often profit-seeking parents, they are treated as machines".
So how do these "machines" play? Huang, dressed in black with a huge gold lame bow, came on stage aged 13 and played as a woman 10 years her senior might. In Beethoven's 1st Piano Concerto, her technique was impeccable, immaculate scales and arpeggios, extraordinary double octaves, clarity of articulation and sense of line. But she did not always realise that, occasionally, the soloist is accompanist, and at times, for someone so diminutive, her sound was remarkably harsh, as revealed in Beethoven's unlikely cadenza to the first movement. Rostropovich is not the ideal conductor, technically, for a very young artist, and where Huang could set her own pace - in the frisky last movement - the playing became more relaxed and characterful.
Han-Na Chang is younger by a year than Huang, but her performance of Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations already reveals a more developed musical personality. From her opening pacing of the theme, with slightly exaggerated rubato, it was clear that she would be in control, maturely looking to the leader for a musical response to her phrasing, while occasionally casting a nervous glance towards Rostropovich. Chang's musical intelligence made it very difficult to believe that a child was responding to Tchaikovsky's rapidly changing moods with so much understanding. The intensity she brought to the d-minor variation was quite extraordinary. Innocence was blasted by terror in Shostakovich's 10th symphony; icy precision was missing.