Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Lunchtime gatherings of delight, adventure and enchantment with pianist Ya-Ting Liou

By , 17/08/2016

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
YA-TING LIOU (piano)

RAMEAU – Le rappel des oiseaux (“The Conference of Birds”)
SCHUMANN – Davidsbündlertänz Op.6
LIGETI – Piano Etude No.10 (Der Zauberlehrling – “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”)

Wednesday 17th August, 2016

Lunchtime concerts are strange beasties, compared with more conventionally-presented evening concerts – they’re almost always shorter, and because of their mid-day aspect catch people who attend in an entirely different frame of mind to that which would surround an evening concert. Of course many people who are there have retired from working or have a differently consitituted agenda to someone who’s midway through a working day. But nevertheless it’s still a different experience for anybody, compared with that of a concert in the evening.

As it most likely is for the artist or artists as well – one imagines any performer might well be fresher and more energetic at around noon than at the end of a normal day’s activities (though this could depend, I suppose, on the individual’s predisposition towards being either an “early bird” or a “night owl”). Still, in such matters, how a performer’s or listener’s experience might vary can be reconciled in most cases by the well-known expression “Viva la difference!”

To be honest, for me, the main difference is the concert’s length – and the reduced time-frame of the lunchtime concert means that whatever both performers and audiences do to establish lines of communication has to happen quickly, and not be gradually and patiently eased into, as with an evening concert. Of course, whatever “instant combustion” does take place, it can still feel, in many instances, at the concert’s end as if we’ve had only the first half!

I was definitely feeling these “first-half blues” at the end of Taiwanese pianist Ya-ting Liou’s recent St.Andrew’s lunchtime recital, even though the programme was tightly-packed with the kind of fully-focused performance-and-repertoire engagement which was guaranteed to give the utmost pleasure to listeners. In fact I heard a gentleman just in front of me turn to his companion at the recital’s end and say “Well, you can’t get much better than that!”, which served as a kind of “instant imprimatur” of appreciation!

The trouble was that, against all reason, I wanted more, having heard Ya-Ting previously play a full recital (which I reviewed on Middle C, here : http://middle-c.org/2013/11/ya-ting-liou-delight-and-triumph-amid-near-empty-spaces/), while knowing, of course, that my “had we but world enough and time” expectation was in this case a fatuous exercise, a kind of “conceit” of the sort practised by metaphysical poets.

But what a programme she gave to us! – on the face of things a bit of a hotchpotch, one might think, consisting of music by Rameau, Schubert and Ligeti! What on earth would make such an assemblage from far-flung eras, of disparate styles and with chalk-and-cheese intentions work together in concert? In fact the composers’ names and the music’s titles simply didn’t convey anything of the unities and affinities these pieces proclaimed when heard in close proximity.

It’s long been customary for pianists to explore in single recitals music from different eras, irrespective of how the various styles of playing and the different instruments for which the music would have been first written might have (but not in all cases!) required completely different responses from the player. One commonly hears music by any of those three Baroque giants, JS Bach, Handel and Scarlatti played on a concert grand, and often not by “baroque specialists”. Sometimes one encounters a work by Purcell, or one of the English virginalists, Byrd, Tallis or Gibbons et al. But I think this was the first occasion on which I’d ever heard a keyboard work by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) played in a non-specialist keyboard recital.

Le rappel des oiseaux (freely translated as “The Conference of Birds”) appeared in the French composer’s second collection of harpsichord pieces in 1724, consisting of two suites. This celebration and imitation of an aspect of nature isn’t merely a collection of decorative twitterings – in Ya-Ting’s hands the sounds had an ethereal quality or ritual, like a kind of other-world enactment of exchange between wild creatures in a language removed from human comprehension. The phrases were here beautifully articulated, most delightfully so when left and right hands rapidly alternated, conveying a sense of true concourse. Something of Charles Darwin’s “chaos of delight” description of New Zealand’s native birdsong was captured by Ya-Ting’s playing, in accord with the composer’s vision of such an avian conference.

Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänz Op.6 was also written to evoke a gathering, one imagined by the composer, featuring the presence of wayward and eccentric but purposeful individuals (the “Davidsbündler”) determined to carry out certain artistic principles dear to the composer’s heart. The music was inextricably bound up with Schumann’s love for Clara Wieck, whom he told that the work “contained many wedding thoughts”, including a Polterabend (a traditional German wedding-eve party, during which old crockery is smashed to bring good luck to the new marriage). Despite calling the collection “dances” Schumann wrote the music as a set of exchanges between the opposite sides of his own persona, Florestan and Eusebius, the one impetuous and passionate, the other poetic and dreamy.

Ya-Ting Liou seemed to make every one of these pieces her own, her playing seeming to soar over the entire soundscape of these eighteen pieces with complete assurance, yet take us into the visceral and emotional world of each one. Her passagework, ever articulate and flexible, combined crystal clarity with resonant warmth, never emphasising one at the expense of the other. She captured that “questioning” aspect of the music so common in Schumann’s writing (No.2 “Innig”), evoking for us a sense of the romantic artist pondering the mysteries of existence in solitude, yet was able to drive the music forward with incredible momentum and weight (Nos. 4 “Ungeduldig”, and 6 (“Sehr rasch und in sich hinein”).

Describing what I heard in Ya-Ting’s playing over each of the eighteen pieces would push the reader’s patience overmuch with my reviewer’s flights of fancy! However I must beg people’s indulgence in allowing me to at least describe the effect of her playing of a couple of “groups” of pieces. The third of the dances was given the title “Mit humor”, which the pianist presented as bluff and Teutonic at the outset, before becoming lighter and more impish in the middle section – the deftness of her touch allowed her left hand to “gurgle” with contentment at the right hand’s playfulness. Then the following “Ungeduldig” was all agitation and strife which just as abruptly changed into the graceful poetic mood of ‘Einfach” – how beautifully and delicately were Ya-Ting’s delineations between her hands, of limpid pools from which the melodic lines traced their archways.

More rumbustions were let loose with “Sehr rasch”, the playing having a tremendous physicality which belied the pianist’s diminutive appearance, the music lacking neither weight nor power in its expression. Against this came the enigmatic, improvisatory-sounding “Nicht schnell, a kind of mind-stretch, with the music seemingly wanting to grasp something just beyond reach. Each upward impulse created a beautifully-voiced roulade of sound, a marked contrast to the robust energies of the following “Frisch”, whose impetuosities were reinforced by some delightfully “grunty” left-hand rhythms – such vivid characterisations!

The seventeenth piece was titled “Wie aus der Ferne”, the music “floated” in and out of the sound-picture, Ya-Ting employing exquisite varieties of tones and colours to seductive effect. We were retuned with some poignancy to the “questioning” No.2 before the mood built up to an intense, swirling climax, our sensibilities “rescued” by the player and allowed to calm down and re-enter a pensive mood once again. Ya-Ting’s constantly shifting colour-palate made the final “Nicht schnell” a kind of “home is where the heart is”, the gentle, concluding melodic undulation having a heart-easing quality which bore out the composer’s own commentary via the words of Eusebius, who “expressed much pleasure with his eyes”. We got the feeling here of being taken right into the deep heart of things finally at rest, the “Davidsbündler” here having certainly given its all.

Perhaps it was wise of Ya-Ting to conclude her programme with something rather less other-worldly, else we might all have drifted out of St.Andrew’s under a Schumannesque kind of spell and walked into lamp-posts or through nearby shop windows or even under a bus or two! Waking us from our Eusebian reverie called for strong measures, and one of György Ligeti’s Etudes certainly did the trick. It was something of a magical transformation to boot, as the piece’s title (assigned by the composer) was “Der Zauberlehring” (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).

Here, we wondered at and delighted in compositional and pianistic sleight-of-hand working their alchemic spells in tandem, conjuring up configurations of notes whose colours and rhythms changed bewilderingly before our very ears, galaxies of light and sensation cascading all about, the sounds sinking into a vortex-like cleft of bass-note darkness, and then magically reappearing at the keyboard’s other end, directing and steering the scintillations this way and that in a joyful cosmic dance, before dismissing the laughing, bubbling impulses with a peremptory gesture. Incredible mastery, involving both control and freedom, a sense of complete ease with either a larger order or larger anarchy in our best of all possible worlds – Ya Ting’s playing trickled, danced, and drove through it all, leaving us breathless with delight and completely refreshed. And, as I’ve already noted, I thought that the gentleman in front of me, whose remark of appreciation I overheard, couldn’t have said it better!

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