IN: Reviews

Simplicity and Steel in Liu’s Schubert


Meng Chieh Liu (file photo)
Meng Chieh Liu (file photo)

And so continues this spring’s wondrous piano Schubertiade, and to the short list of topmost interpreters—meaning mature, profound, direct, not only technically immaculate—we now must add Meng-Chieh Liu. It felt like, I don’t know, discovering Murray Perahia decades ago.

Professor at the Curtis Institute and Roosevelt University, Liu was presented at Jordan Hall last Saturday evening by the estimable Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts in a program of three Schubert sonatas (A, D, B-flat, D.664, 850, 960). The audience, not large and unusually still at least for quiet moments, included many local notables, among them James Buswell, Donald and Vivian Weilerstein, and Russell Sherman and Wha-Kyung Byun.

You don’t necessarily have to conflate life and art and believe, pathetically, that Schubert’s later work is informed by a sense of death impending in order to realize that something latent and strange is going on throughout the mature sonatas: sun, clouds, dark clouds, more sun, then clouded sun, sorrow, balm, all with harmonic fits and starts and distressed abruptions seemingly unearned.

Nor do you necessarily need to know that this particular serious, modest musician was, in his early 20s in the mid-1990s, well into a stellar career when it was brutally interrupted by a three-year ordeal of vasculitis (near-mortal debilitation and including cardiac arrests, chemotherapy, weight loss to 90 pounds, hand tendon surgeries with titanium nail implant, 100%-certain predictions of never playing again, grueling rehab).

At the keyboard Meng-Chieh Liu physically showed none of that, except for some unusual hand and finger formations. Indeed, as another reviewer recently put it about another Liu Schubert recital, the playing was “so flawless that it is a tad embarrassing to report on it.” Musically and emotionally were another story: the evening quickly turned into a rapt, potent experience—“cosmic,” as one veteran Schubert concertgoer put it at halftime.

Schubert’s melancholic mixed weather starts, in my view, with the so-called lesser A-major sonata, D.664. Its sunlit opening sounds cover some ache as usual, and the remarkable short (two pages) ensuing Andante may dramatize failure of some attempt at reconciliation. From the beginning it was clear this was going to be a simple, focused, absorbing, upsetting experience. Liu pedals more than some Schubert pianists, which everywhere strengthened his steely control, somehow. He also perfectly handled the Andante’s ever so slightly unstable rhythm, which many pianists miss. A superb reading.

The D-major (D.850) has always seemed to me surpassing odd—loud start (but not a march), then peculiarly swung about many places, with more recircling than usual—and until this performance was not a piece I really got or, insofar as I did get it, cared for. Liu’s way with it pretty much changed all that. It was as musical and affectionate a performance of this sonata as you’d ever want to hear, and I find nothing so fine on YouTube. The quick opening movement busted out; the Con Moto syncopated rhythms, next, were perfection, including those recurrent poignant cha-cha moments; the Scherzo features new syncopations (Liu really is more attentive to lopsided rhythms in Schubert than other pianists, while always keeping the pulse going) but its heart lies in another grieving, repetitively stabbing middle section. The Rondo starts as one of those mincing musicbox things Schubert likes so much, happy skipping and all, although familiar for such previously public display. Eventually it swings into Beethoven runs, tick-tock exercises, some more poignancy, some more middle Beethoven, and then, to close, some double-time Charleston stuff, winding down to delicacy. Is it rather a mess of moods? Still sounds so to me, but when I have to hear it again, I want it to be a recording of this performance. (Over Schubert’s seas new piano star Charlie Albright creates, rightly or wrongly, more and bigger waves than Liu, but since all Albright wants is simplicity and perhaps less swooning, I say Meng-Chieh Liu would be the one to study, or indeed study with.)

Was anything improvable in Liu’s cosmic, organically inflected playing? I felt there could sometimes have been more profile, a little more accent or something, to some passages treated a tad blandly. Phrasing likewise: some subsections were neither particularly shaped nor shapely. The entire rich concert-hall dynamic range could have been dropped overall a few decibels. And the octave above middle C was sometimes not loud enough relative to the one below (Schubert is famously “midrangy”). One achievement Meng-Chien Liu shows that I’ve never seen anything like is a complete and amazing seamlessness between silence and sound and back to silence, meaning his initial touch and ending release are, what, featherweight, entranced, effortless, somehow without break of any sort? I suppose this wouldn’t matter in an audio-only recording, although I thought it sounded different too. But it certainly appeared like nothing by anyone else. Mystery fingers.

Of Liu’s B-flat sonata there is not a lot to say. He took a while to settle in, but by repeat time it became hypnotic with every rumble and the quietest of aching pauses. About potentially winceable movements like the Scherzo, Alfred Brendel has said “You must make them worthy,” and Liu’s approach after the Andante sostenuto was altogether purposeful, with the most flowing Trio I have ever heard. And that Andante prior was lit from within, with Liu turning, perhaps personally, its intense, enthralled moments of bittersweet into a convalescent’s holy song of thanksgiving.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

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