Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.18 in E-flat Major, Op.31 No.3 (1802) [19:14]
Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916)
From Goyescas (1909-10): Los Requiebros [8:45]; Quejas ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor [5:54]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Humoreske, Op.12 (1838) [28:08]
Amber Yiu-Hsuan Liao (piano)
rec. 26 May, 2 June 2010, L. Brown Recording, New York. DDD
MSR CLASSICS MS1368 [62:06]
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.
Good, but not exceptional, and cannot compete with the best available choices.