Third of the Cathedral’s recitals for the new Steinway, from Jian Liu

Jian Liu (piano)
Concert, to support the purchase of the Steinway piano from the former TVNZ studios at Avalon: ‘Evocations – piano music in a vast space’

Byrd: Hughe Ashtons Grownde
Beethoven: Six Variations on a theme in F major, Op.34
Farquhar: Sonatina
Debussy: Images Book I (Reflections in the Water; Homage to Rameau; Movement)
Bach-Busoni: Chaconne

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 14 November 2014, 6pm

Compared with the two earlier recitals in this series, this one attracted a small attendance only.  Perhaps it is getting too late in the year (i.e. close to Christmas) for people to come to a Friday early-evening recital.

It was appropriate to hear Byrd played in the Cathedral, although a little strange to hear it on the piano.  From My Ladye Nevells Booke that consisted of 42 pieces for keyboard, the Grownde would most likely have been played on the virginals at the time of its composition.

Liu played with minimum sustaining pedal; despite the resulting clarity, the resonance of the building added its lustre, which was perhaps not inappropriate for this piece.  It was full of charm and subtlety, of melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics, all conveyed fluently giving a thoroughly delightful effect.  The piece’s passionless nuances meshed well with the calm atmosphere of the Cathedral, away from the noise and bustle of the city.

Beethoven was another matter.  The composer’s dynamics, and greater use of the pedal, could not help bringing into play the reverberation of the building – what one Wellington musician has called its ‘bathroom acoustics’.  Perhaps because of the small numbers of absorbent bodies present, I found the acoustic intruded more than at the previous two recitals in the series.

Jian Liu’s flexible finger-work and totally impeccable technique gave us splendid music, however, and the power and the passion of Beethoven were there, along with his astonishing inventiveness, in the Variations. The interpretation gave Beethoven his due, but the louder passages produced reverberation that perhaps even Beethoven in his deafness might have heard.  The Variations proceeded from the relatively simple to the utterly thrilling, while the gentle ending was soulful indeed.

It was good to hear music from noted New Zealand composer, the late David Farquhar.  However, it would have been useful to have had programme notes, as were provided for the first concert in the series, or at least tempi markings for the movements of the works performed (where relevant) as for the second concert.  The music began with a small cell of  notes close together – a great contrast to the expansiveness of Beethoven.  The music gradually built up, and strove for higher things.  This growth was beautifully handled.

The slow movement juxtaposes excitements for both hands alongside playful figures, becoming rhythmically intense.  The music then moved straight into a lively, even ecstatic ending.  Apart from this and the opening Byrd work, Liu played the programme without music scores.

The dreamy first movement of Debussy’s Images brought the pedal into use a great deal, but with the quieter dynamics of this work there was not undue resonance, and what there was simply added to the ambience of Debussy’s watery atmosphere of the first piece.  This music above all other in the series lived up to the title ‘Evocations – music in a vast space’.

The “Hommage  à Rameau” is a quintessential keyboard piece, reliant on impeccable technique as well as on fine interpretive skills – both of which Liu has in generous measure.  “Mouvement” features bells clanging in the right hand part while the left hand has deep rumblings supporting the growing cascade of notes that sometimes appeared to arrive from afar; at others, they were close and meaningful.

As an organist, I prefer my Bach unadulterated, but I can understand why composers are drawn to compose upon the many wonderful compositions of JSB.  Busoni was one such, and wrote his elaborations on the famous Chaconne from Partita no.2 for violin (BWV 1004). The violin work that was described by Yehudi Menuhin as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists” can stand the treatment.  The dynamic contrasts certainly gave character, but brought out again the undue resonance in the building.  The variations built up to a level almost of ferocity.  Yet there was much variety of mood in addition to dynamics.  As time went on, I was becoming converted to Busoni’s work, not least because of Liu’s sensitive performance, bringing out as it did much beauty and nuance.

Liu is very much the versatile solo pianist, and he did the Steinway proud – and the composers whose music he played.


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