Amber Yiu-Hsuan Liao presents to us a well thought-out
recital-type program. She places side by side three diverse
pieces from different styles and eras. This works remarkably
well in one listening, like a good three-course meal, and leaves
a feeling of balance and completeness.
Beethoven, with his rare ability to create simultaneously very
dissimilar works, published the piano sonatas No.17 (“The Tempest”)
and No.18 under one roof. They are so different in character
and technique as if they were written by different composers.
The 17th is all up and down, full of dramatic outbursts
and Romantic anguish, which is understandable considering that
it was written in the year of the “Heiligenstadt Testament”.
By contrast, the 18th is sunny and carefree. The
first movement starts slowly and hesitantly, like a peaceful
awakening, and turns into a busy note-spinning Allegro, which
resembles the Spring violin sonata. This music is calm
and smiling, and even one sudden shadow that runs over its face
is fleeting and not serious. This sonata is unique in that it
has both a Scherzo and a Minuet - no slow movement. The former
is a somewhat grumpy, yet contented moto perpetuo;
the latter is serene and unhurried. The finale is galloping
and assertive, with Schubertian bounce.
Liao’s playing is energetic and brisk. In the first movement
she is sharp and somewhat mechanical; more depth and soul can
be found in this music. In the Scherzo, the pianist does not
show many half-tones and shades, but overall her dry and crispy
performance is suitable for this music. Arguably, the nuances
are not as important here as is the forward momentum, but I’d
prefer to have them both. Her Minuet is elegant and thoughtful.
The finale is energetic and massive, on the edge of becoming
heavy; the monotonous rattling starts to bother. Overall, her
tempo decisions are excellent, but dynamic nuances are wanting.
After the almost classical spirit of Beethoven’s sonata, the
colors switch to a very Romantic palette in two beautiful excerpts
from Goyescas. Los requebras is a wide-gestured
waltz in Spanish hues, free and elated, breathing with full
lungs. The performance is not especially atmospheric, but has
the sumptuousness of a grande valse. This is a big-boned
reading, with high waves. In the coda I hear some banging, and
the piano is ringing, but this seems negligible, such is the
sense of these ecstatic gestures and happy exclamations.
The heart of the album is the next track, Quejas ó la Maja
y el Ruiseñor, with its wide romantic melody, sad and passionate.
The gorgeous tune passes from one register to another. When
the lamenting maja falls silent, the nightingale starts
its magic and carefree trills outside the window. The pianist
wears the heart on the sleeve and seems to overdo the emotions;
this complaint is a show-off. Such music, in my opinion, calls
for a softer, more elastic touch (or instrument). The rubato
is very natural, and emotionally it is a very good reading.
In both Granados excerpts, Liao expresses the delight of the
beautiful, smooth motion, the delight which will be recognized
by those who ever danced the waltz.
They say that separations can be beneficial. Leaving aside the
question of whether Papa Wieck was right, I doubt that the history
of classical music had many separations that brought into life
as much beautiful music as the years 1838-40 for Robert Schumann
and Clara Wieck. Humoresque Op.20 is not humorous;
the name reflects the meaning introduced by Jean Paul: ”humor”
here means “mood”. It teems with moods! Unlike other Schumann’s
piano cycles of this period, Humoresque is not divided
into separately labeled parts; it is practically a stream of
consciousness. The parts flow into one another; the themes vanish
and reappear. The mood alternates between longing, sadness,
happiness and anguish. Like many of Schumann’s piano works of
this period, this is a long love letter to his dear Clara, in
which she could see herself as a tender lyrical goddess, and
also see Schumann – the impetuous, impatient lover, whose moods
change in an instant.
The presentation is again a bit mechanical, which is not so
bad for the rolling and bubbling faster parts. The ecstatic,
turbulent pages are done well, though not without some evenness.
The poetry is gone from the more lyrical pages, and some of
them become hard and rigid. One should just listen, for example,
to 1973 Wilhelm Kempff on DG, in order to discover how much
poetry lives in this music. I am not a Kempff fan, but he definitely
shows what can be done with this music. Together with the heavy
sound of an 1881 Steinway, it does not add up to the best possible
performance: the notes are there, but not the music.
Overall, this is a good presentation of the three works, though
not exceptional, and cannot compete with the best available
choices. The instrument could be partially responsible for the
hardness of sound. The recording quality is good, the sound
is clear. It was a good idea to program these three works together,
but if I return to some part of this disc in the future, it
will be the Granados.