Taiwanese-American pianist marks the two pianist bi-centenaries at Old Saint Paul’s

Ya-Ting Liou (piano)

The Chopin and Schumann bicentenaries: ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ (Bach, arr Egon Petri), Ballade No 2 in F, Op 38 (Chopin), Kreisleriana, Op 16 (Schumann); Danza del gaucho matrero, from Danzas Argentinas, Op 2 (Ginastera)

Old St Paul’s, Mulgrave Street

Tuesday 6 July, 12.15pm

Schumann’s Kreisleriana was the centrepiece of this interesting concert by a pianist unknown to everyone there, I imagine. Of Taiwanese origin, Ya-Ting Liou’s abbreviated CV discloses connections with Canada, the United States, and Argentina; she currently teaches at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

She opened with an arrangement of Bach’s ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’, sounding slightly ill-at-ease, and Chopin’s second Ballade was given to transitions in mood and tempo that did not convince me. Her intention may have been to illustrate her reading of whatever narrative is thought to have lain beneath the surface of the piece; marked by changes in spirit and tempo that did not altogether create an integrated work; I would have to be exposed to such an interpretation again for it to have a chance of persuading me that it was what Chopin had intended.

The concert ended with another non-anniversary piece: an aggressive, ferocious dance by Ginastera, a composer she has obviously made a particular study of in her relationship with Argentina. It was a spectacular, pretty flawless performance to send the audience away with.

So I was expecting to find a player who took naturally to the impulsiveness and extreme mood changes that Schumann is given to, and nowhere more than in the wild spontaneity of Kreisleriana (The name comes from an E T A Hoffmann story of a Kapellmeister named Kreisler). Its does not have quite the immediate ecstatic delight of Carnaval or the deeply emotional power of the Fantaisie in C, but it grows on one, to become one Schumann’s most beloved works.

Up to a point Ya-Ting Liou expressed the music’s romantic impetuousness and spontaneity, but what was somewhat lacking was finesse and an ability to express the fantastic in refined, colourful, entrancing terms.

There is a consensus however about the difficulty of interpreting Schumann, especially this piece. If the opening section – Agitatissimo (to use the Italian equivalent of Schumann’s German markings) – did not augur well, cluttered, rushes of arpeggios and scales not cleanly articulated, there was light and calm in the succeeding phase whose short rising and falling motif anchored the music.

Some of her most appealing playing was in the slow sections, starting with the second, ‘Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch’ (Con molto espressione, non troppo presto), and again in the fourth section, ‘Sehr langsam’. In the second, ‘Sehr innig’, hesitant chords became flowing melodies, and the two fast Intermezzi contained within that section where the impulsive Schumann is at his most typical, there was some entrancing playing. No section maintains a uniform mood or tempo, and it was one of the pianist’s virtues that she did more than simply lurch from one to the next without somehow finding a convincing connective spirit.

Clara did not find this work congenial in spite of Schumann’s embodying ‘Clara’ themes in it and it was for that reason, possibly, that he dedicated it to Chopin – an appropriate link for a recital in this year. Though this performance had its shortcomings, even for an all-forgiving Schumann groupie like me, it was a most welcome opportunity to hear one of his great piano works, played in one of Wellington’s most charming ambiences.

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