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Zhu Xiao-Mei is not the latest Chinese whizzkid. Born in 1949, she was one of the millions to be scarred by the ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966–76) before leaving China for the US, then France, where she records for Mirare.

First encountering her in Bach’s 48, I was immediately seduced by the natural purity of her playing, and its seemingly effortless expressivity. Her Mozart impresses no less. It is personal; idiosyncratic, even – some may find her flighty – but indubitably informed by a deep love of the music and an irrepressible joy in bringing it to life.

Xiao-Mei does not force herself on the Sonatas as Uchida can (her K576 finale is an aberration), nor does she lapse into self-consciousness (McCawley in K330’s Andante) or reverentialism (Haskil, Solomon et al). She is perhaps closest to the venerable Horszowski in making every phrase vibrant, characterful and communicative.

The variations are delightfully playful and the unaccountably neglected C minor Fantasy is appropriately improvisatory. The only disappointment is that Xiao-Mei omits the repeats in the great Adagio, in which she rivals Zacharias in intensity.

In sum, Xiao-Mei is never guilty of simply playing the piano; she is always, passionately, making music. Her younger compatriots should take note.

JOE LAREDO Read the full review on Agora Classica


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