About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network

New York

Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



Bruce Liu’s Ravishing Rhapsody

New York
Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
02/15/2024 -  & February 16, 17, 2024
Louise Farrenc: Second Overture in E‑flat major, Opus 24
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43
Antonin Dvorák: Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Opus 70

Bruce Liu (Pianist)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Santtu-Matias Rouvali (Conductor)

B. Liu/L. Farrenc (© Quist/Painting by Luigi Rubio)

Oh,” said Mrs. Organ Morgan, “I’m a martyr to music.”
Dylan Thomas, from Under Milk Wood

‘Rhapsody on a a Theme of Paganini’ sometimes sounds like a plague of insects in the Amazon Valley, sometimes sounds like the Day of Judgement, and for a change grows lachrymose.”
New York World Telegram review, 1936

Hearing the word “Farrenc” for the first time last night, I imagined an eccentric spelling of “Ferenc”, as in Liszt and Fricsay. But no, Louise Farrenc was a highly successful 19th Century French pianist and composer, who won plaudits in her time. Her piano pieces are sometimes played in Paris, but her orchestral works–two concert overtures and a few symphonies–were forgotten in a country which loved Grand Opera before orchestral grandeur.

And one must admit the first 45 seconds of her Second Concert Overture were a grand dark blazing of sound. Trombones, horns, strings and drums blasting out demonic sounds, chords opening the flaming of Hell. In his second week with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the young Finnish conductor Santtu‑Matias Rouvali gave all the right impetus to these chthonic notes.

Unhappily, after this introduction, composer Farrenc may have felt remorse, for the main themes of the Overture were simple Schubert/Mendelssohn tunes. Pleasing, lyrical, quite jaunty in their way, and finishing with a Rossini‑like ending. Some day I must listen to her symphonies. Yet I’m not in a rush.

The indisputable highlight of this week’s concert was pianist Bruce Liu in a dazzling performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s always-dazzling Paganini Variations.

My colleague Roman Markowicz heard him in an all‑Chopin recital last year, praising his technique but having reservations about his sense of artistry. Perhaps Mr. Liu took this to heart, since, from his first dreamy notes, he gave the work sensitivity, personality, and those final glissandos could have come (gulp) Yuja Wang.

While the work itself encompasses 24 variations on the 24th Caprice, one supposes Rachmaninoff wanted to free himself from that form (already accomplished by Brahms), giving a half hour of sudden changes, glittering technical problems, and a show‑off vehicle for any virtuoso.

Mr. Liu had no technical problems. With almost insouciant ease, he took those double octaves in his stride, pranced through the scherzando. As for the finale–which even the composer found difficult–Mr. Liu galloped through the hurdles with no problems.

But what about that “artistry.” Art is fungible, and Mr. Liu accented the diversity. After a poetical three variations (with the first Dies Irae more lyrical than mysterious), he sailed into the unexpected fourth Vivo with martial glee. Balance with the orchestra was fine. That link between the 9th and 10th variations had a rare transparency. For once I could hear glockenspiel, trombones and tuba play that Dies Irae under Mr. Lius’s bravura.

As for those super-famous bars in the 18th Variation, it’s impossible to preclude the mawkish. But with Mr. Liu’s attention to all the changes of mood, mawkishness was just one more arrow in his so-memorable quiver of the most diverse emotion.

Normally I am usually averse to encores. Yet the Rhapsody, like 30 minutes of a master magician, and Mr. Liu, already a master pianist, called for two more transcriptions demanding his legerdemain. The first was Liszt’s “Campanella” Etude (yes, again Paganini). Then Bach’s B Minor Prelude arranged by Alexander Siloti played poetically, with the right hand disguising the Bach theme.

Mr. Liu could have continued all night, but the second half gave conductor Rouvali time to give us Antonin Dvorák’s Seventh Symphony. A great work offering and–demanding from the conductor–utter personality. Not only was this not personal, but the conductor gave us formal logic rather than emotion. Outside of a flaccid Poco Adagio, nothing was wrong here. But this most monumental Dvorák symphony deserves more monumental conducting. And this, the opposite of Mr. Liu, left one quite moderately happy, rather than emotionally elevated.

Harry Rolnick



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com