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Chopin Liu 4861555
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Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise [13:34]
Mazurkas, Op.33 [10:13]
Études (12), Op. 10, No.4 in C sharp minor “Torrent” [2:01]
Études (12), Op. 25, No. 4 in A minor “Paganini” [1:39]
Nocturnes (2), Op. 27, No.1 in C sharp minor. Larghetto [5:42]
Waltz No.5 in A flat major, Op. 42 [3:42]
Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54 [11:07]
Variations on Mozart’s ‘La ci darem la mano’ in B flat major, Op. 2 [16:39]
Bruce Liu (piano)
rec. 16 October 2021, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw

The International Chopin Competition has an excellent track record in placing the right winner in the right place. And more of its winners have gone on to flourishing international careers than from any other international piano competition – although the 10th, of course, gave us one of the most illustrious of all post-1980 careers from a pianist who got no further than the third round. On the evidence of this Chopin disc from DG, and another from the Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina, which includes the E minor concerto, there is no reason why the Canadian pianist Bruce Liu shouldn’t join them.

Although there are exceptions to an excess of Chopin in recitals and concerts after winning this competition, Liu’s UK debut in March with the Philharmonia Orchestra was of Tchaikovsky – the daunting and massive G major concerto (and this work will be Liu’s second recording under his new contract with Deutsche Grammophon). Ironically, the French pianist Alexandre Kantarow played this very concerto – the only pianist to do so – in the finals of the last Tchaikovsky Piano Competition (he would win it). Whatever this concerto’s shortcomings, and as unwieldy as it can sometimes be, it’s a talismanic work for the right, gifted pianist and has more often than not received celebrated performances of it. A pianist who plays this concerto isn’t just standing out from the Tchaikovsky concerto crowd he is also strategically clever too in programming it.

In the case of Liu, I wrote that his playing combined something of both the virtuosic Titans and Apollonian humanism. It’s not a common combination for a pianist – I’ve often found them largely missing the latter entirely. This Chopin disc, however, is completely about humanity; in many places, the music ceases to be just music and notation becomes transformed into poetry. Some of it is breathtakingly beautiful; but there are places where Liu exerts such athleticism at the keyboard he is like a python. These hands – especially his left hand – have controlled but impressive power. The virtuosity, often underestimated in Chopin, is of the kind that can only be described as free; “effortless” would be wrong simply because there is nothing to imply “effort” in any of Liu’s playing whatsoever.

I have been spending more time with Chopin recently than for many years. Ivo Pogorelich’s new disc has proven to be the most challenging – and by extension Valery Afanassiev, too, who has become my comparative pianist for the Pogorelich review. Takahiro Sonoda has rescued me – perhaps more accurately given me perspective – from some of their more existentialist playing. Bruce Liu’s Chopin arrived last and has proven to be the freshest of them all, but perhaps to my surprise able to support itself against these three great pianists. Pogorelich, Afanassiev and Sonoda are defined by their unique touches, but what makes you keep coming back to them is the compelling magic you get from being drawn to what you first heard in a performance on subsequent hearings. Liu’s Chopin also has that magic, that captivating sound you want to hear again and again. For example, it isn’t really the haunting, hypnotic beauty of the opening pages of the Andante spianato & Grande Polonaise, Op.22 that is the single returning factor here which is so compelling; no, it’s that almost unsettling feeling he’s playing you like a marionette. And neither is it the dominant theme on the right hand that draws the listener in; there’s something miraculously velvety and sensuous about Liu’s left hand that tips the balance here.

Pogorelich does this too, but I think with him there is added cruelty to how he does it; that is entirely absent from Liu’s playing. Pogorelich can let you into the slightest crack of his performances but just as quickly close you out; one moment his Chopin bares its soul like no one else’s, the next it becomes like a personal testimony the listener cannot hope to be part of. Liu’s extraordinary B flat minor Sonata (on the Chopin Institute disc) is worth hearing precisely because it is so soul-searching, but it never lapses into one-sided inwardness. The closest we get to the sonata on the DG disc is in his performance of the Scherzo No.4 in E major, Op.54 where Liu’s touch, so dexterously feline-like in the trio, emerges from the opening where it is molten and passionate. It’s a performance that is born from youth and entirely uninhibited because of that.

The Variations on Mozart’s ‘La ci darem la mano’ in B flat major, Op. 2 are one of the highlights of the disc. Chopin originally wrote this piece as a concertante work but its brilliant piano writing underscores why it works better for solo piano. Concertos and concertante pieces can sometimes – although rarely if you’re playing Mozart, also one of the most perilous of all composers to open a recital with – provide fertile ground to hide the instrument from those little exposed wrong notes. Chopin does something similar in these Variations on Mozart which somehow seems to try and do its worst on a pianist.

Apart from the ‘Introduzione’ and the ‘Coda’ the six variations themselves run from barely over a minute to just under two-minutes. Schumann thought that he could see Leporello winking an eye at him, and Don Giovanni himself flying past in a white cloak. He was, in 1831, writing about the concerto version but he wasn’t refraining from describing what the pianist needed to do either. This is a portrait piece, and it requires from the pianist a degree of instrumental colour. Liu is certainly vivid, each variation is compact enough to be its own Mozartian character. The whole performance is a joy to listen to, technically brilliant, but just on the right side of mischievous like a Calixto Bieito Mozart production.

DG clearly knew what they were doing in choosing the two Études – No.4 in C sharp minor from the Op. 10 and No.4 in A minor from the Op. 25. Both the “Torrent” and the “Paganini” are dazzlingly played. The latter is exceptionally clean, keyboard leaps just as precisely played as you might hear from the deftest of violinists. What is so noticeable here is again that superbly controlled left hand (don’t underestimate the iron-bar grip that Chopin asks for here). Both Études might easily be thought to have come from the mighty hands of Cziffra.

The four Mazurkas, Op. 33 set a different kind of pace and mood to some of the more virtuosic pieces on this album. Some of Chopin’s more melodic and emotionally warm rather than complex and deep music, Liu takes these pieces at face value. Tempi are immaculate – perhaps only the D major is slightly on the swift side. When Chopin writes Lento it’s what we get. I don’t find Liu to be overly expressive – some of Chopin’s more decorative scoring isn’t elaborately played, and accents are sharply done but are hardly chiselled as they are by Pollini, for example (in the C major). The longest of the four, the B minor, can sometimes make for a weary journey; that is hardly the case here.

We return again to that exceptional left hand for the only Nocturne on the disc, the C sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1. The ‘Larghetto’ tempo gives Liu ample room for transparent passagework – even by bar 3 the observation of Chopin’s legato marking is distinctive. If the “Paganini” Étude had asked for strong left hand fingers, then the C sharp Nocturne demands a much wider left hand width than normal. But whatever the technical brilliance here, it’s the musical language of it which is most impressive. The muscular force of Liu’s left hand – more often than not sounding like it’s in a velvet glove rather than the more armour-plated one of a Pogorelich – sets a macabre tone in a piece that is always heading in a state of tension and nervousness towards its sunny coda.

We live in an age of terrible uncertainty and sometimes music can provide a measure of surprising constancy. Alexandre Kantarow and Bruce Liu – both of whom I have now reviewed in concerts this year – were born in 1997. That year is turning into an exceptionally auspicious one for young pianists.

Bruce Liu’s Chopin disc is that rare thing: a recital that manages to be a masterpiece of inspiration and brilliance. And it might very probably come to represent a new age in Chopin performance.

Marc Bridle

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