Jian Liu at the piano – visionary programming, extraordinary playing

Classical Expressions 2014 presents
Jian Liu (piano)

WILLIAM BYRD – Hugh Ashton’s Grownde (from “My Ladye Nevells Book”)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – 6 Variations in F Major on an Original Theme
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Variations on a theme of Paganini

Classical Expressions, Upper Hutt
The Gillies Group Theatre

Monday 21st July 2014

I missed whatever printed or spoken announcement had alerted others to the re-arrangement of the programme order – so that when Jian Liu began his Classical Expressions recital with William Byrd instead of Sofia Gubaidulina, I experienced a kind of reverse apoplexy! I had girded my loins in preparation for a Slavic onslaught of sorts, and was thus completely and disconcertingly rendered helpless by the gentle Tudor-English melancholy of Byrd’s treatment of a fellow-composer’s “ground” (a bass pattern to which melodic and harmonic variations are added).

It may have been a mere echo of my expectation of hearing Sofia Gubaidulina’s work – but in the opening theme of Byrd’s music I thought I caught more than a hint of plainchant mode, a phrase or two whose trajectory resonated like a sung phrase from an Orthodox service. Of course, as well it might have been Byrd’s own background as an English Catholic bringing out a Latin plainchant phrase or manner, however secular in intent the actual work was.

The music in this case came from a collection called My Lady Nevelles Booke, one which Byrd himself had compiled as a gift to the “lady” in question (one of his pupils). In doing so Byrd immortalized both her and (with this particular piece) his slightly older contemporary Hugh Ashton, devising wonderfully exploratory figurations and strongly-wrought harmonies and counterpoint figures to go with the older composer’s ground bass.

Jian Liu gave a predictably lucid, beautifully-voiced set of responses to the music’s different variations, though early on there were places where I thought he kept the trill-laden figurations on too tight a rein. I wanted more sense of the fantastical, more spontaneous unfolding of those trills and their laughter and sense of wonderment. Here it seemed as though the figurations were a shade too stiff in effect, and their roundings-off at times too abrupt.

It could have been that Liu was deliberately contriving this effect, feeling that the music had sufficient wonderment in itself, and needed clarity and shape, without allowing too much indulgence. As the music grew in animation and vigour, Liu’s playing seemed to relax and knit more readily with the fantastical textures, his control giving the composer’s arguments and counter-arguments great eloquence, especially in the Ninth Variation, and making the most of the welter of notes over the following two variations, and the harmonic richness of the tune’s final statement.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne gave us the greatest possible contrast with the Byrd in terms of its dynamic angularity and overall physical impact. Liu gave the opening playing of astonishing power and girth, building granite-like structures, around which circled angular counterpoints and leap-frogging figurations. Mad boogie-woogie sequences crashed to earth, the remnants picking themselves up and dashing madly hither and thither in desperately fugal pursuits. One marvelled at the composer’s seemingly endless keyboard inventions, time and again setting immovable objects against irresistible forces, as with rampant left-hand octaves terrorizing right-handed chords into cowering submission (shades of Shostakovich, here, probably cavorting in glee!).

All of these irruptions and coruscations were delivered by Liu with strength, brilliance and fearless resolve, going to the heart of each of the variations with unerring instinct. From a sequence in which the music was becalmed grew bell-sounding impulses, both tinitinabulations and “strong gongs groaning”, the bright-voiced bells building the excitement, supported by wondrously deep-throated clamoring from the turrets and towers of cathedrals.¬† Then, majestically, the work’s opening returned, as jagged and angular as before, but with extra, insistent octave support from the left hand, Liu beautifully controlling the textures, and allowing the silences to drift softly backwards as the voices took their leave of us.

That miracle of adaptation, Busoni’s “realization” of JS Bach’s mighty Chaconne from the Violin Partita No.2 BWV 1004, was merely one aspect of the pianist’s veneration for the older composer and his works – he also produced his own editions of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Partitas, and the English and French Suites. With the Chaconne, Busoni thought it possible to recreate the work from a more theatrical and Romantic perspective, thereby adding to his age’s understanding of the music. I’ve not been able to find any additional evidence for the story (which I read somewhere) of Busoni touring with the violinist Ysaye, frequently hearing him play the Chaconne as part of the Partita, and eventually producing his transcription of the work, and playing it to the stupefied violinist, after cautioning him to refrain from making any comments until he, Busoni, had finished the performance!

Busoni wrote his transcription in 1892, dedicating the work to the celebrated pianist Eugene d’Albert, who apparently was not pleased – in fact d’Albert reproached Busoni for what he called “tampering” with the original, but the latter was famously unrepentant. In fact Busoni’s reply to d’Albert deserves to be quoted – “I start from the impression that Bach’s conception of the work goes far beyond the limits and means of the violin, so that the instrument he specifies for performance is not adequate.” As was his wont, Bach had left no performance instructions – dynamic or tempo markings – on his manuscript, aside from the notes themselves. The work and its possibilities remained alive in Busoni’s thoughts for many years afterwards as he revised his transcription at least three times.

Jian Liu’s playing certainly entered into the spirit of Busoni’s “theatrical and Romantic perspective” – here, expressed through his hands, was grandeur set alongside rapt intimacy, variegated pianistic colour next to simple transparency, harmonic augmentation and single voicing. Throughout, both player and instrument sounded Bach’s music-framework in full conjunction with Busoni’s creative responses to the same. At times the virtuoso charge of it all was edge-of-the-seat stuff, as with the left hand octaves thrillingly driving the tight-handed figurations with Lisztian brilliance, or both hands harmonizing cascades of pealing bells while some of the gentler musings had whole sea-changes of mood, such as the contrast of “withdrawal” from major to minor mode three-quarters of the way through the piece.

Both the interval and the Beethoven work which followed provided relief of sorts from the overwhelming weight of concentration from both music and performance, and from the orchestral weight of sound made to emanate from the piano. “Beethoven’s “Enigma” Variations” quipped a friend, upon seeing the “On an Original Theme” subtitle to the work – though not quite as far-reaching or as enigmatic as Elgar’s, Beethoven’s variations are unusual in that each piece is in a different key. This work, from 1802, marked an intensification of creativity for the young composer, what he called a “new road”, and along which he was shortly to squarely face his life’s first major crisis, the onset of his deafness. This work, however, gives little sign of impending tragedy, the theme a brief but lovely cantabile melody, the variations discursive and imaginative.

Jian Liu brought out the character of each variation with great relish, the bagatelle-like D-major, the rumbustious B-flat-major with its contrasting high and low registering, the graceful, drawing-room-like E-flat-major, the purposeful march-like C Minor, with its Schumannesque pre-echoes, and the final adroit merging into C major and then F Major, the Mozartean flow punctuated by Beethovenian muscle at cardinal points! Liu played the flowing, rippling passagework which decorated the final Adagio beautifully, the cascadings giving way to a simple, unadorned fragment of the original theme at the end.

Rounding off this evening’s presentation of virtuosic chaconne-like works came one of the most fearsome – the Variations on a Theme of Paganini, by Brahms. This work is one of the “big three” adaptations (the other two are by Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski) of violinist and composer Niccol√≤ Paganini’s 24th and last Caprice from his set of Caprices for solo violin. And, for the adventurous, there seem to be plenty more explorations of the same work by composers employing a bewildering range of instruments, from traditional to techno-based.

At first the combination of Brahms and Paganini would seem incongruous – here, after all, was the champion of the conservatives exploring and extending the music of one of the great romantic virtuosi. Parts of the work sound also as though they could have been written by Liszt, whose music Brahms had little time for. But the common ground here was the young pianistic wizard Carl Tausig, Liszt’s favourite pupil (“When the little one goes on the road I shall shut up shop!” Liszt was reported to have said of Tausig). Refusing to align himself exclusively with either conservative or radical elements of the age, Tausig also befriended Brahms, who wrote the Paganini Variations for him, calling them “Studies for Pianoforte”. One critic described the requirements for any interpreter of these pieces as “fingers of steel, a heart of burning lava and the courage of a lion”.

Jian Liu certainly had those prerequisites, engaging the work’s difficulties, both technical and interpretative, with strength, flair and purpose. Never over-flamboyant at the keyboard, his seemingly tireless fingers, wrists and arms channelled a bewildering amalgam of complex responses and emotions into the music’s heart, realizing its brilliance, power, charm, exhilaration and tragedy. To choose individual variations for comment would seem almost churlish, as it was Liu’s overall sweep which impressed most, in retrospect, his integration of the disparate elements, making the work seem like a true reconciliation between form, technique and emotional content. One came away from this performance with a deeper appreciation of the composer, of his music, and of the times that produced such an outpouring of creative imagination.


















Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *