Ya-Ting Liou – delight and triumph amid near-empty spaces

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace presents PIANO +
A week of concerts in support of the proposed new Welcome Centre

Concert No.5 – Ya-Ting Liou (piano)

BEETHOVEN – 6 Bagatelles Op.126
BERG – Piano Sonata Op.1
LISZT – Années de Pèlerinage – Première année: Suisse

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday 16th November 2013

I had thought at first that last night’s poor attendance at pianist Melanie Lina’s St.Andrew’s recital was the fault of a kind of “Friday night” syndrome. As it transpired, I had singled out Friday most unfairly, because this evening (Saturday) less than half last night’s already meagre number turned out to hear pianist Ya-Ting Liou. It’s true that neither of  the pianists were “names” to conjure with as far as the public was concerned, but each of their programmes as listed spoke volumes in terms of interest and musical pleasure.

Fortunately for those of us who had gone to these concerts, each of the pianists seemed completely unfazed by the lack of audience numbers, assuring we who were there that the important thing was to be able to play, and that SOMEBODY was there to listen. And judging by the programme that Ya-Ting Liou had put together this evening, it was obvious that here was potentially a most interesting and questing spirit wanting to play for us.

Taiwanese-born Ya-Ting Liou came to New Zealand in 2009 to live, and has since concertized both as a soloist and chamber musician throughout the country. I’ve seen and heard her play only once before, in a 2011 Wellington concert with her husband Blas Gonzales, as part of a duo called the “Pangea Piano Project”, playing works by New Zealand composers (https://middle-c.org/2011/05/pangea-piano-project-the-art-of/). On that occasion I was impressed by her artistry, but my appreciation was somewhat decentralized both by the excellence of her musical partnership, and the interest generated by the home-grown repertoire. In short, I wasn’t really prepared for the overwhelming experience of encountering her work as a recitalist.

And what music she offered! – Beethoven’s final set of Bagatelles for piano, the richly-wrought Op.1 Sonata by Berg, and Liszt’s first youthful Year of Pilgrimage, inspired by Switzerland. Each of these works tends to be talked about more than played, though interestingly enough it was the third occasion I’d heard the Berg Sonata in concert in relatively recent times. The Beethoven however, took me all the way back to my first and only experience of Alfred Brendel playing “live”, in Wellington in 1975, while Liszt’s Première année I’d never before heard in recital complete (I fancy there may have been a Vallée d’Obermann or two at some stage along the way…..).

The first Beethoven Bagatelle elicited warm, rich sounds from player and instrument, but without smoothing over the piece’s rhythmic and melodic angularities – and to follow, what a contrast Liou got with the impulsiveness of the following allegro! Her engagement with the music was at all times apparent, demonstrating a spontaneity and volatility surprisingly at odds with her diminutive appearance and seemingly tiny hands! After a richly contemplative Andante she again released great surges of energy for the rumbustious Presto, in full command of the dynamic contrasts in the music, and creating a gorgeous liquid flow throughout the “trio” section, one whose gossamer finish had a slightly “other-worldly” quality.

As for the final Bagatelle’s remarkable fusion of grand serenity and dismissive volatility (one commentator described the explosions of energy which introduce and dismiss the piece as “the composer delivering to his instrument a kick down the stairs”), Liou brought out the kinship of the music’s visionary explorations with the slow movement of the Hammerklavier, allowing free play between both immediacies and the mysteries of the sounds – at the end, only a slight mis-hit took away some of the finality of the payoff that its composer perhaps intended.

What to make of Alban Berg’s enigmatic one-movement piano sonata? Berg was simply thinking along the lines of Debussy who famously remarked that “after Beethoven, sonata form was no longer valid for composition”. Here, after a brief exposition, the music takes its cue from the piece’s opening phrase, and develops accordingly and organically.

Interestingly enough, some of Berg’s sequential passages reminded me of Rachmaninov’s keyboard writing in his First Sonata – what’s common to both, I feel, is the emotional drive at the bottom of the sequences, however much in thrall each composer is to a prevalent ideology of composition. Ya-Ting Liou expressed this yearning and striving towards these “remote consonances” with real feeling, as wholeheartedly as she delineated the piece’s haunting downward intervals towards even more remote regions. She brought to life the rhapsodic surface of the music throughout, while keeping the underlying strands of the music’s journeyings unbroken.

In the minds of many people, Franz Liszt’s fame is based upon his flashy, virtuoso instrumental pieces, and the greatly exaggerated tales of his “frequent” amours (which, if true, would have left him precious little time for his better-documented activities and achievements). He was, of course, reputed to be the greatest pianist of his age, and a good deal of his music reflects that extraordinary keyboard facility. However at least as much again shows the composer in a more serious and purposeful mood, and many of these less overtly spectacular works have, until recent times, been seriously neglected, known only to scholars and connoisseurs.

Perhaps it would be unfair to class Liszt’s three collections of music inspired by his travels – he called them Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) – as neglected in toto, because certain pieces from each of the three volumes have been regularly featured in pianist’s recital programs. From the opening Swiss Year comes Vallée d’Obermann, and from the Italian (Second) Year there are the Petrarch Sonnets and the concise but powerful Dante Sonata. Finally, from the Third Year collection there’s the justly famous Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este (The fountains of the Villa d’Este). However, performances of any of the books as complete entities have, until recent times, been rare.

Most welcome, then, was Ya-Ting Liou’s presentation of the first of these collections, the Première année: Suisse. Liszt and his mistress Marie d”Agoult travelled extensively in Switzerland during the 1830s, the composer recording his reflections in a collection of pieces titled Album d’un voyageur, published in 1842. He later revised the cycle of pieces, adding two further ones and rechristening the collection Première année: Suisse (“First Year: Switzerland”) republishing the set in 1855.

If I go on to describe Liou’s performances in detail it will take people longer to read the review than it would to listen to a recording of the cycle! – tempted as I am by the impact of witnessing her achievement, by the totality of her conception, the brilliance of her playing and her conveyance of a great love for and understanding of the music, I’ll reluctantly content myself with a few brief descriptions of certain “moments”, hoping that readers will glean from these something of my excitement and thankfulness at “being there”.

Grand, rich chordings opened the first piece Chapelle de Giuillaume Tell, giving the music eons of resonance and space – bold, colorful playing! – I liked the touch of “diavolo” in places, with mischievous and sometimes menacing snake-slithers of sound, one that gave way to the grandest, most orchestral of conceptions of the music, which we revelled in like great lords and ladies! From this, the change to the tranquil waters of the Lake Wallenstadt was almost surreal, producing a magical effect, the playing “embracing” the music’s textures and colours, and painting a “landscape of emotion”.

The next piece sounded like Liszt’s homage to Beethoven via the latter’s “Pastoral” Sonata, while the lively and volatile Au bord dune source seemed to gather both momentum and girth to the point where the music became a rushing torrent – very “organic” thinking by the pianist, in view of the onslaught of the following Orage, with its terrific physical attack and ferocious, incisive aspect. As with Melanie Lina’s playing of Ravel’s Alborado the previous evening, I was astonished at the incredible “glint” in the pianist’s tones, and wondered if that was helped by what appeared to be Liou’s sparing use of the sustaining pedal – nothing, no sound, colour or texture, was indefinite or muddled, the pianist’s fingers doing all or most of the work so brilliantly.

Vallée d’Obermann was next, a veritable tone-poem in itself, and a touchstone of romanticism in music. Liou’s performance had a positively psycho-analytical ring, the music delving into the Byronic character’s growing crisis of confidence and faith, and overwhelmingly coming to terms with the world at the end, amid Musorgsky-like sonorities, with the traveller having the last word when nearly all was said and done. Much-needed relief from these full-on outpourings was provided by the Grieg-like delicacies of the following Èglogue, Liou’s wide-ranging capabilities of touch producing all kinds of easeful sonorities here.

How affecting, then, was Le mal du pays, its emotion fetched up from the depths and striking at the heart of the weary and comfortless traveller. In Ya-Ting Liou’s hands the feelings grew from out of the sounds, remembrances of home overlaid by world-weariness and anxiety, and seeking some kind of equilibrium and solace in the rich ambient chords which quietly closed the work. More celebratory and ritualistic was the final Les cloches de Genève, Liou’s seemingly boundless tonal resources at the music’s service whole-heartedly, making for a resounding and celebratory conclusion to the journey.

So, by dint of the playing on both of these occasions at St.Andrew’s, our initial dismay seemed to morph into delight!  Very great honour is due to both pianists on all counts – but we Wellingtonians will have to look to our laurels in the future.















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