Jian Liu – pianist in full flight at the Ilott

Wellington Chamber Music presents

Jian Liu –  a “Fantasia” recital

CPE BACH – Fantasia in C Major W 59/6  / BEETHOVEN – Fantasia in G Minor Op.77

LISZT – Apres une lecture de Dante; fantasia quasi sonata  / MOZART – Fantasia in D Minor K.397

SCHUBERT – Fantasie in C Major “Wanderer” D.760

Jian Liu (piano)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 29th July 2012

At the interval, after pianist Jian Liu’s blistering traversal of the Liszt Dante Sonata, I was approached by a piano-fancier friend, whose aspect was one of great excitement and agitation: transfixing me with an intense, fire-flashing gaze, he exclaimed, “I hope you’re going to write up this recital as the greatest Wellington has heard for years!”. Being in a somewhat euphoric state myself, after the Liszt, I nevertheless managed to remember the farmer in one of Carl Sandburg’s dialogue poems, who, in response to the question, “Lived here all your life?” replied with a laconic “Not yit!”. But I still added my two cents’ worth regarding what I’d heard so far to the paeans of praise from others who joined us, to my friend’s momentary, if not complete, satisfaction.

Certainly, Jian Liu’s performance of Liszt’s visionary exploration of the spirit of Dante’s Divine Comedy seemed like an all-encompassing display of both technical brilliance and poetic identification with the music. I had heard Liu relatively recently in recital, playing the same composer’s B Minor Sonata, and thought at the time that his Lisztian credentials were pretty impressive (the review of that concert is also on Middle C). However, in terms of overall effect, Liu’s playing here for me surpassed that earlier performance in almost every aspect. And while my allegiance to Diedre Irons’ Liszt-playing remains unshaken in terms of her incomparable variety of touch and poetry of phrasing, Liu’s more austere way with the pianistic textures was allied to a tremendous intellectual grip of the music’s overall shape and form which at the time swept all before it. It was no wonder my friend was thus transported by it all.

The overall idea of the recital – that of exploring difference composers’ treatment of the idea of “fantasia” – brought forth fascinating results, especially in the first half. In a sense, what threw the Liszt work into bold relief was the relative emptiness of the piece that preceded it, a work by Beethoven, no less, though not one of the master’s greatest compositional efforts. In fact, this Fantasia in G Minor has never seemed to me to bear out the contention that Beethoven was one of the greatest improvisers of his age, one capable of putting every other virtuoso of the time to flight in those “contests” that pianists of the early Romantic era  (and before, remembering Mozart and Clementi) seemed to occasionally take part in. It’s pretty thin stuff, really, with occasional flashes of the “Ludwig Van” of the great sonatas, placed cheek-by-jowl with handfuls of somewhat tiresome show-off stock pianistic figurations.

My feeling is that the “real” Beethoven would have improvised with much greater freedom and contrast than this piece exhibits – perhaps the “writing down” of what was meant, after all, to be a spontaneous recreation of musical thought has spoiled it. One thinks of Lady Bracknell’s description of natural ignorance in “The Importance of Being Earnest” – “Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone.” I thought also that the contrast with Mozart’s famous D MInor Fantasia K.397, which Liu played to open the recital’s second half was instructive regarding the compositional methods of each of the composers – Mozart, we are told, tended to “compose in his head” and then write down what he’d worked out, whereas Beethoven’s processes were far more visible in the form of scraps of motifs, figurations and sequences which filled his sketch-books, like a sculptor hewing at an ever-present shape or form, and bringing it into being. In this respect, Mozart’s work seemed finished, whereas Beethoven’s had the feel of a work very much in progress.

The recital opened with a Fantasia by another stormy petrel, CPE Bach, whose music I particularly love for its volatility and its juxtaposition of beauty with angularity. Jian Liu brough out this Fantasia’s capricious spirit with a will – here was a sense of fun at work expressed in delightfully unpredictable ways, even if the composer somewhat over-milked the repeated two-note figure which served as an omni-present watcher on all the other goings-on. Liu showed excellent “evocation” instincts in his playing of this piece, characterizing the different moods strongly and bringing to bear an enviable command of dynamic and keyboard colours. What CPE’s father, the great Johann Sebastien, would have thought of it all, I couldn’t begin to think, though, of course one remembers he was no mean fantasia-writer himself.

So, after these two somewhat frivolous explorations of keyboard capriciousness, the Liszt work hit us like a thunderbolt, and especially in Jian Liu’s hands. While I couldn’t, in the wake of hearing those two Russian women pianists, Sofia Gulyak and Halida Dinova, earlier in the year, award the palm for “the greatest recital in years” to Jian, his playing of the Liszt placed his pianism fully on their level, if from a vastly different tradition. It would be outside the scope of this review to analyze just why Liu’s playing made the impression on me that it did. But in one important respect it had what I felt was slightly lacking in the same pianist’s  earlier recital also featuring Liszt’s music – an all-pervading resonance, a sustenance of tone which here opened up whole vistas of expression, ranging from the blackest oblivion to the most shimmering and scintillating light. In terms of energy and impulse it was playing I’ve rarely heard surpassed by anybody in recital, in places. It was art which largely concealed art, to Jian Liu’s credit – throughout, one felt the presence of both Liszt and of Dante, ahead of that of a pianist making these evocations possible.

Having gotten our sensibilities properly calmed down during the interval, we felt able to return to our seats for some more music – first up was the delicious D Minor Fantasia by Mozart. I was interested in what Jian Liu would do with this work, as Mozart never finished it, and posthumous editions have “rounded off” the allegro section with a concluding flourish and cadence which I’m afraid sounds worthy but somewhat glib. A recording of this work by the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida adopted what to my ears seemed like a wonderful solution – i.e. to return to the opening arpeggios of the work, modulate in the same way, and then conclude with a final major-key archway which ends quietly in the bass. However, Jian Liu preferred to follow the Breitkopf Gesamtausgabe’s aforementioned “completion” – and his dignified, sensitive playing made the conclusion sound of a piece with the rest. But what a charming and beautiful work it is, the ideas given plenty of “air” by Liu, preserving something of the piece’s spontaneity despite its finished aspect.

The afternoon’s concluding “fantasia” was the renowned “Wanderer Fantasy” by Schubert. Pianists themselves seem divided regarding the legendary technical difficulties accompanying this work – Schubert himself was reputed to have said, upon leaping from the piano after an abortive attempt to play the work in public, “The devil may play it, for I cannot!”. As regards Schubert’s oeuvre for solo piano, it is clearly the most technically demanding, though whether it challenges the executant difficulties of some of the other virtuoso pieces of the Romantic repertoire seems to be a matter of opinion. Called the “Wanderer” Fantasy because of the work’s direct quotation from the theme of Schubert’s own Lied “Der Wanderer” of 1816, the piece has four distinct sections, though is played without a break. It was a favorite of Liszt’s who made a transcription of the piece for piano and orchestra, and who was also inspired by Schubert’s technique of “thematic transformation” to produce works like his own B Minor Sonata.

Straightaway, Jian Liu engaged us physically with the music, making wonderful use of dynamic terracings to give the sounds  plenty of organically-conceived variation – thanks to Liu’s unfailing sense of the music’s direction, the argument always seems to be going somewhere, and never put in a rhythmic or colouristic straitjacket. Though the physical effort of engaging with those notes was made apparent, and one or two of the arpeggiated figurations sounded a bit blurred around the edges, the playing’s essential energy and liveliness carried us joyfully along, eventually bringing us to the edges of a deep, richly-layered region of dark stillness and mystery. Here, the music became all of a sudden hymn-like and entranced, almost religious in feeling (no wonder Liszt couldn’t keep his hands off it!), the initial simplicity of the lied-melody then fragmenting into a hundred eager voices, creating a ferment of activity growing from the textures of the music. Here Liu’s ear for detail meant that the dappled strands of sound impulse were kept flowing and undulating – marvellous playing.

The presto episode again had that sense of boundless energy, some elemental life-force expressing a kind of cosmic joy and high spirits, one whose voltage increased and crackled as the concluding fugue hove into view. So, the pianist might have dropped a few notes here and there! – what was far more important was that the music’s momentum was gloriously maintained, everybody, pianist and listeners caught up in a kind of trajectoried trance whose culminating wave of energy occasioned great scenes of appreciation from an excited audience. Wisely, Jian Liu brought us all back from fever pitch with a transcription of a Richard Strauss song, very Schubert-like, rapt and beautiful, a fitting conclusion to a memorable afternoon of music.




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