At her highly anticipated solo recital at this year’s Lucerne Festival, much lauded Chinese pianist Zee Zee showed power and tenacity. The Corona-conforming audience at the Lukaskirche was only half its usual size, but that hardly detracted from the magic of the concert.

Zee Zee
© Lucerne Festival | Peter Fischli

Zee Zee began with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, a work that revolves around a demonic spirit that robs people of their sleep. Once described by the composer as “three romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity”, the work is full of surprises. Already the first movement Undine showed the water nymph’s music a good match for the concert venue: behind the podium and piano, a modern, floor-to-ceiling stained glass window cast a glorious rainbow of colour onto the stage. Ravel’s playful, scintillating opener was followed by a darker second movement, The Gallows, wherein the semblance of a tolling bell haunted the score. Even the third movement, titled Scarbo, suggested that something more ominous was coming, just as the tapping of Zee Zee’s stiletto heels and her scarlet-coloured leather soles conjured up the dervish: an astonishing, animated time-keeper, along with her raised eyebrows.

Next came Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, Op.11, a work which dispenses entirely with conventional musical “grammar” and may represent the most momentous “crazy” in all musical history: the great leap into atonality. At the very moment when, for a second, the score briefly paused, someone in the audience coughed, which drew a broad smile from the pianist. She was, seemingly, game for anything. She went on to weave Schoenberg’s unpredictable sound fabric: the second, slow movement showing itself close to painful. Zee Zee gleaned substance from the work’s broad variations of colour, despite the complexity of its subjective, emotional expression and often averted her eyes to above the piano, as if for some consummate guidance. Schoenberg’s third and final piece, considered the most innovative of the three, was one the composer himself said would induce hard breathing before every attack. Having championed the work's mood swings straight through to its single-note conclusion, Zee Zee shrugged and sat back on the bench as if to say, “Whew, I made it!”

Zee Zee
© Lucerne Festival | Peter Fischli

Three pieces from Liszt’s substantive Années de pèlerinage, a collection of 26 pieces for piano solo, concluded the programme. Zee Zee infused the Vallée d’Obermann with what sounded like a child’s voice: innocent, inquisitive, prone to hesitation, before the sheer dynamite and then almost drug-induced nirvana of the work’s conclusion. Les Jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este splashed and spouted unrelentingly such that the pianist had to wipe her brow with the effort, and the warp speed of the Tarantella, complete with terrific syncopation, ended the recital with bombast and fireworks. Zee Zee stomped her foot and grinned broadly, sensing her debut at the festival had passed muster with flying colours. And hands down, it had. 

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