Romance with elegance – Jian Liu plays Schumann and Liszt

New Zealand School of Music

Jian Liu (piano) in concert

SCHUMANN – Carnaval, Op.9 / LISZT – Piano Sonata in B Minor

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn

Wednesday 30th May 2012

What a delight for piano-fanciers! – here at the Adam Concert Room was a free recital featuring two of the cornerstone works of Romantic piano literature served up for us by pianist Jian Liu, currently the co-ordinator of classical piano studies at the New Zealand School of Music. Both works fully tested the player, producing in each instance a strongly-etched interpretation from an obviously well-equipped musician who possessed an abundance of skill, endurance and creative imagination.

On the face of things pairing Schumann’s and Liszt’s music made a logical enough coupling of works, though their close proximity here highlighted the nineteenth century’s most significant musical controversy – the conflict between tradition and innovation which burst into open conflagration between the conservatives, who clung to classical ideals and the progressives, who wanted to explore new ways of doing things. As so often happens, the debate became excessively nasty at times, with casualties on both sides, though at the time, more so on the part of the progressives such as Liszt, whose music, was systematically trashed by mouthpieces of the conservative establishment, such as the influential critic Eduard Hanslick (though the latter greatly admired Liszt as a pianist).

Schumann and Liszt were in fact good friends at first, but the differences which developed between them unfortunately turned into issues, exacerbated by people such as Schumann’s wife, pianist Clara Wieck, who disapproved of what she called Liszt’s “empty, vulgar compositions”. Despite all of this, Liszt in 1854 dedicated his Piano Sonata to Schumann, certainly in return for the latter’s earlier dedication to Liszt of his wonderful Op.17 C Major Fantasia, and perhaps also in a spirit of reconciliation – though by this time Schumann was beyond reach, having become increasingly beset by the mental instability which was to contribute to his death in 1856 at a mere forty-six years old.

So we were presented with two very different but equally potent and wholly characteristic manifestations of musical romanticism – though the conflicts and animosities which flowed between the worlds represented by these two pieces continue to this day to divide opinion and polarize musical sensibilities. At the recital I sat next to and talked with two people, one an enthusiastic admirer of Liszt and his music, and the other who, when the Sonata was finished, said “I made myself stay to listen to Jian play – but oh! – how awful that music is!”. Evidently, the spirit of the disapproving Clara Wieck lives on in today’s world.

One of the recurring characteristics of Jian Liu’s playing throughout both works was the generous flexibility of his phrasing, giving the notes space in which to breathe at all times, so that nothing seemed hurried or sounded incoherent – within these spaces his sensitive detailing, never fussy or contrived, was always accompanied by the feeling that he was drawing out from the notes themselves what sounded like an infinite variety of voicing, shadings and colorings. So, it was no surprise that he was able to constantly entertain and charm our imaginations with his portrayals of Schumann’s moods and characterizations throughout the composer’s richly-conceived parade of personalities, “Carnaval”.

Right at the beginning the opening fanfares had just enough rhetoric to arrest the attention without losing the declamation’s urgency and excitement, the following animato building up its energy and exuberance, before breaking off and beginning the whimsical procession of characters and emotions that give the work its never-ending fascination. From so many finely-drawn characterizations, I thought Liu’s Pierrot particularly vivid, the phrasing free rather than metrical, and with some lovely, subtle voicing, the repeat emphasizing the dreamy, self-communing aspect of it all, with even the emphatic repeated three-note phrase drawn into the world of wonderment. The Valse Noble enabled us to hear how Liu’s left hand beautifully varied its emphasis, the different voicings bringing a strand of meaning to the music far above that of mere accompaniment.

Spontaneity in performance is a risky business (Liu’s Papillons, though exciting, was a bit of a scramble, as were some of the left-hand figurations in the treacherous Paganini), but that sense of throwing caution aside was so worthwhile, so imbued with spirit and impulse as to drive away any sense of routine.¬†And with that spirit applied to the work as a whole, Liu was able to present the music to us as sounding freshly-improvised – Chopin, for example, coming across here as a spontaneous-sounding tribute from one romantic to another, the music seeming to almost lose itself in its own reverie, here, towards the piece’s conclusion.

So, there was poetry and elegance aplenty; and excitement, too, with the right-handed repeated-note scintillations of Reconnaissance followed by the agitations of Pantalon et Colombine, energies shared across both hands in the latter to stunning effect. The final March of the League of David against the Philistines had plenty of swagger, and the ensuing stretta swept our sensibilities along towards the final triumphant if battle-scarred chords. Liu’s playing again caught a sense of the occasion, of the composer’s Don Quixote-like questing spirit, complete with fully-imagined triumph at the end.

But what of Liszt and the B Minor Sonata? Side-by-side with Schumann and with Jian Liu’s finely-honed sensibility brought to bear on the music, the work’s visionary scope and searing focus seemed as if newly-wrought for this occasion, with nothing about the performance left to “play itself” or convey anything of Clara Wieck’s charges of emptiness or vulgarity.

Liszt-lovers like myself are all too aware of the abyss of disapproval mined by all those nineteenth-century conservatives beneath the composer’s feet – and carried onwards in the twentieth century by agenda-ridden character assassins such as Ernest Newman. No other major composer, with perhaps the exception of Wagner, has had to endure, both throughout his lifetime and posthumously, such torrents of criticism and outright hostility regarding his music (let alone his grossly-distended reputation for extra-musical exploits). Fortunately, the advocacy of musicians such as Louis Kentner, Alfred Brendel, John Ogdon and Georges Cziffra, and a host of present-day pianistic giants, among them the redoubtable Leslie Howard with his staggering survey of the composer’s keyboard output for Hyperion Records, has effectively given the lie to the Clara Wiecks of this world regarding the music’s interest and worth.

Whether Jian Liu aligns himself with the believers or the skeptics in the matter of Liszt’s music, he plays it with the care and commitment of a true advocate, with no detail left to chance or unexplored. As with his playing of Carnaval, I was taken by the extent to which his piano-playing speaks across the hands, with what I had previously thought of as mere accompanying figures having something interesting and significant to say. Of course, the Sonata, with its amazingly-layered reworking of the principal themes needs a player alive to those different voices and their characters, and Liu didn’t disappoint, investing every episode with a kind of organic flow that constantly led the ear of the listener onwards. Even during the couple of instances where the music’s complexities momentarily clouded his bearings, he was able to seize upon the severed strands and quickly pull them together and continue – heart-stopping moments, indeed, but their resolution further evidence of the player’s quality.

For me one of the highlights of Liu’s performance was his playing of the fugue – Elgar’s description “a devil of a fugue” relating to his own Introduction and Allegro for Strings would as well apply to LIszt’s diabolically-conceived lines, the latter’s use of the work’s themes demonstrating compositional mastery of an almost indecent kind! Here, these were set in motion by the pianist as part of an ever-burgeoning torrent of impulse whose progress evoked a kind of demonic pursuit through the mind’s most shadowy and sulphurous realms of fancy. By contrast, and perhaps fittingly enough, another moment of magic was generated by Liu over the work’s last few pages, with whole worlds created between the hands, and as beautifully-timed a final low B as I’ve ever heard.

All I wanted during the performance of the Liszt was (should I be ashamed of admitting to this?) a touch more rhetoric in places, mostly in the form of bigger, more resonant tones at one or two cadence-points. Liu’s playing treated the music entirely on its own merits throughout, and was as faithful an account of the score as given by any other pianist I’ve heard – but everything I’ve read of Liszt’s playing indicates that he was no literalist, and that he wouldn’t hesitate to “heighten” whatever mood or feeling the composer indicated (accounts suggest that Liszt and his contemporaries had a more “creative” attitude to the printed score than we ourselves allow performers in this day and age).

Unlike that of his great contemporary, Chopin, the music of Liszt has a “larger-than-life” aspect which, in some instances invites performer-involvement of a kind that reflects the spirit of the work rather than one slavishly following the letter of the score. Without adding notes or radically changing tempi or dynamic markings, I feel it’s still possible to convey something of that “beyond the notes” feeling that marks a truly great and visionary performance of this repertoire. Jian Liu had for me something of this quality in his soft, inward-sounding playing – had he allowed a few more degrees of lingering romantic resonance in the bigger moments the performance as a whole would then have utterly knocked me sideways.






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