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An Event in Three Acts or : Bruce Liu Debuts at Carnegie Hall

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/19/2023 -  
Frédéric Chopin: Rondo à la mazur in F Major, Op. 5 – Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38 – Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”, Op. 2 – Piano Sonata No. 2 in B‑flat Minor, Op. 35 – Trois nouvelles études, Op. Posth.
Franz Liszt: Réminiscences de Don Juan, S. 418

Bruce Liu (piano)

B. Liu (© Jennifer Taylor/Carnegie Hall)

Winning first prize at the 18th International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland, catapulted Chinese-Canadian pianist Bruce Liu into fame almost overnight. A recording contract with the prestigious Yellow Label (aka Deutsche Grammophon), multiple concert bookings, even, within the surprisingly record time of 18 months, an invitation from Carnegie Hall to make his solo debut there. All of which launched an international career.

For Liu’s definitely memorable debut the house was sold out and the reception from the audience eager to hear the new star was exceptionally enthusiastic. Yes, Liu is already a star, further confirmed after the concert by the line of fans–the longest I have ever witnessed for this type of event–waiting for the prized autograph on his newly published CD of Chopin performances.

Well, if Mr. Liu’s recent Carnegie Hall debut is any indication, we need not worry about his immediate future on the stage but perhaps about his musical development. Young performers rarely qualify as finished musicians at the time they receive their laurels.

Predictably, Mr. Liu centered his program around the works of Frederic Chopin, the composer with whom he is most closely associated at this point. Very few pianists have the audacity to juxtapose two different compositions based on the same Mozart theme, “Là ci darem la Mano” from Don Giovanni: first, the early Variations in B‑flat, and to finish the program, the even more bravura arrangement by Liszt, who also uses the theme in his Reminiscences on Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Whereas Chopin’s work is extremely demanding even for excellent pianists, the Liszt Reminiscences terrify all but the bravest with all sorts of the composer’s typical technical hazards–double‑notes, jumps, unending chordal passages, anything to test the performer’s endurance. The combination of the two compositions by Chopin and Liszt are something of a Liu specialty; I was privileged to hear it several times this past season at his recital in Europe.

Also showcased in the program were several Chopin pieces that befitted Mr. Liu’s so‑called “style brillant”: the youthful Rondo à la Mazur and previously mentioned Variations on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano”. Both works depend on a delicate touch, very fast fingers, a certain sophistication and not a small measure of old‑fashioned elegance. Luckily, Bruce Liu’s formidable finger control can articulate even the densest moments or achieve an eerie quality in such pieces as the Finale of Chopin’s Sonata in B‑flat Minor. These same pianistic qualities allow him to shine in the early works of Chopin, overwhelm his listeners with the Finale of the Sonata in B Minor, or downright floor them with Liszt’s Don Giovanni or “La Campanella.” He astonished everyone in all of the works that featured filigree technique, a light and even touch, precision, clarity and an already mentioned elegance and charm.

The Variations performance was similar to the one I had heard in 2021 at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, where an astonished audience, myself included, had suddenly realized that we had just listened to the prospective winner of the Competition. Interestingly, Variations Op. 2 is the same work that catapulted Chopin to even greater fame when Robert Schumann, after hearing Chopin’s composition, magnanimously declared “Gentleman, hats off; a genius!” When I listen to one of the most difficult variations, No. 4, in which both hands jump all over the keyboard, I often wonder whether this variation might have influenced Schumann in the Paganini fragment of his Carnival, where he incorporates somewhat similar writing to Chopin’s. Was Schumann paying tribute to Chopin as well as to Paganini?

I have already indicated that Chopin’s and Liszt’s variation treatment of the seductive Don Giovanni aria use the same theme in the same manner. Alas, Chopin quotes Mozart’s theme in surprisingly unmusical phrasing that made me wonder if it wouldn’t be better if our soloist, faithful to the score, stuck to the way Liszt presents that same aria in his set of variations. It only proves that even geniuses can be wrong.

Liu plays Variations Op. 2 with uncanny bravura, refinement and grace, an astounding variety of touch, and needless to say, lightning speed. That kind of playing inevitable brings down the house. And so it did at Carnegie. But Liu’s program also reflected the more serious, more dramatic and complex Chopin of the F Major Ballade and B‑flat Minor Sonata. To me the opening of the Ballade is as about as simple a lilting melody as exists. Best to let it sing. Mr. Liu’s intonation seemed a bit awkward. Of course the virtuoso element dominated. But despite some formidable repeated notes in the coda, the prevailing feeling was more of desperation than victorious exultation. Of this Sonata, Robert Schumann famously declared “That he called it a sonata suggests a joke, if not sheer bravado. He seems to have taken four of his most unruly children and put them together, possibly thinking to smuggle them, as a sonata, into the company where they might not be considered individually presentable.”

This scribe observed in Mr. Liu’s interpretation the B‑flat Minor Sonata some common issues that prevail in the majority of other interpretations. My own vision, seldom fulfilled, is to hear the first movement, the one with the supremely deceiving tempo indication Grave - Doppio movement (slow - then twice as fast) in a coherent fashion. The thing is, to Chopin’s interpreters the only agogic indication (tempo) the composer offers is a “sostenuto” when the second theme appears. So listening to this nervous, disturbing, agitated and magnificent movement my question is: if the composer has already changes established note values from fast to slow. (eighth‑notes to half‑notes) to slow down the pulse, should the performer “help out” by further slowing down the pace only to speed it up again a few measures later when the rising chords in triplets arrive? Whereas Bruce Liu and countless others answer with a resounding “yes”, this reviewer begs to differ. Then in the development section where the incredibly skillful composer explores the opening motifs, should the music sound rushed or triumphant? Should we hear the important bass line changing the harmonic texture or should we concentrate on the mumbling of the right hand rushing through?

By now the reader realizes that the answers to my questions haven’t been exactly to my liking. And perhaps, just perhaps, the composer might also have some objections. Let’s remember that Chopin, arguably the greatest of the Romantic composers in structure, order, and an overabundance of emotion, was still a Classicist. Thus Bruce Liu’s version of this first movement establishes that at this point he has not yet considered the riches the left hand can reward us with. To be sure he easily conquered both the demands and difficulties of the Scherzo and the lyrical beauty of the “cello” moments in the Trio section. Similarly, there were nice sounds in the melodious Trio section of the Funeral March, taken at a walking rather than crawling, pace.

As expected, the blistering Finale: Presto proved the Sonata’s tour de force. Here Chopin confronts the pianist not only with the most unusual writing in unison octaves, but also with the most forward‑looking, atonal, enigmatic moments in his entire œuvre. To make things even more difficult, Chopin demands that the Presto (clearly foreshadowing Debussy!) be whispered “pianissimo”, something only the finest virtuosos can achieve/ pull off on a modern piano. Mr. Liu delivered. As the saying goes, this movement alone was worth the price of admission!

Between the Sonata and the Liszt “Extravaganza,” Liu programmed three Chopin “nouvelles” Etudes written for a special collection commissioned in Paris by Chopin’s famous colleague Ignaz Moscheles. In the first Etude, Mr. Liu came closest to singing the melodic lines in a declamatory vocal manner with different inflections for particular “words”. This is precisely the quality I was missing in the other works, and it offered hope that there is a kernel of the true Romantic in this formidable pianist. The last of the etudes is by far the most difficult, demanding from the right hand alone two different kinds of articulation–an upper voice leading the melody with a staccato accompaniment in the remaining fingers. Mission almost accomplished...

With that, we finally arrived at the evening’s magnum opus, Liszt’s unforgiving, monumentally difficult Réminiscences de Don Juan (1841). To his already superior technical skills Mr. Liu added a sure sense of style in the theme on which Liszt built an even more elaborate set of variations than Chopin’s. In adapting Mozart’s three themes, Liszt starts with Don Giovanni’s first encounter with the slain Commendatore–he actually uses both of Commendatore’s entrances in the opera–and then switches abruptly to the famed “Là ci darem la mano” on which he bases the variations.

In the last part; Liszt challenges pianists to an endurance test of the type of extended staccato playing that seems to be Bruce Liu’s forte and greatest pianistic accomplishment: superb control of his wrist to prevent its fatigue. If there was any discomfort, it went unnoticed. The same outstanding ability permeated the final segment of the recital–specifically “La Campanella,” along with Réminiscences an enviable example of his amazing virtuosity.

And finally, dear reader, the encores. Most recitals conclude with two or sometimes three encores. Is it possible that Mr. Liu has used as his model either the younger Evgeni Kissin whose twelve encores are still engraved in our memories after a decade, or Bruce’s friend Yuja Wang’s six or seven after almost every recital? During the encores, Mr. Liu’s generosity of spirit and winning personality sparkled through some amiable chatter with the more outspoken audience members.

Let me praise separately these encores: Rameau’s « Les Tendres Plaintes » (from Suite in D Major of Premier Livre de Pièces de clavecin) for its convincing performance of harpsichord music with no attempt to imitate the limitations of the original instrument; then a tempestuous version of the Ecossaises, silly music Beethoven might have written as entertainment for his teenage house‑parties, and quiet Satie (Gnossienne No. 1) that augured something more demanding to come. And finally we heard that gravity-defining performance of “La Campanella,” which for good reason brought the house down and would have, in my not so humble opinion, made even Horowitz or Friedman proud. The concluding octave passages made us gasp for air as we savored the joyful ride Mr. Liu created out of this most difficult reworking of a Paganini composition Liszt wrote.

Just when it seemed time to say goodbye, Bruce Liu offered–on demand–three more encores, two of which were quite substantial: “El Puerto” (from Albéniz Iberia (Book I)), which approached Spanish authenticity without quite penetrating it, and then a quick‑silver Etude in G‑flat Major (Op. 10, No. 5) featuring the same breathtaking octave passages previously mentioned. The third and final encore served up an idiomatic, very stylishly rendered Kapustin Variations Op. 41 (quoting Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, in a version perhaps even classier jazzier and more convincing than Yuja’s a few years ago.

To conclude: Bruce Liu is on the threshold of the major, international career. He has a lot to offer and unlike few of the past winners from Warsaw, he has not only ability to play well but also considerable charisma and that is a very important element in developing career, being accepted by audiences, orchestras and conductors. As my friend prof. Piotr Paleczny once very accurately observed in an interview I conducted with him, the winning of competition starts after getting/being awarded the top prize. Then your job is to win over managers, orchestras, conductors, audiences and yes, even critics. And also to remember that in any moment you may be replaced by the next “flavor‑of‑the‑month (or year)”, next winner, next star‑in‑making.

I will be awaiting not only Mr. Liu’s return but also look forward to his growth as an artist. To play the piano better is probably impossible, all the same there are other aspects of music making. Perhaps next time we will hear Bruce‑the‑poet rather than fantastic virtuoso? Perhaps next time we shall witness more of the vocal quality and phrasing coming out of his instrument? Maybe his sound will gain in depth and roundness, a quality that his formidable namesake Kate Liu, has in spades? Maybe we will hear in his playing more declamation and narration, two qualities that are so dearly needed to make any interpretation truly memorable and great and of which we heard only a few glimpses? I hope that his fame will not make him to abandon his teacher, himself the 1st Prize Winner in Warsaw in 1980, Mr. Dang Thai Son: I suppose that he could still offer his student so much about the style, music making and sound production! I wish him all of that from the bottom of the heart (which should not lead to presumptions, that critics even possess that valuable organ...).

Roman Markowicz



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