Another August and another all-Brahms piano recital from the superlatively sensitive, careful, and calm Meng-Chieh Liu, newest piano professor at NEC [see BMInt interview here]. Sunday evening in the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts Music Festival at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, Liu offered the 16 Waltzes, the Sonata No. 1, Bach studies including the magnificent Chaconne, and the Paganini Variations. A substantial outing, and most of it was, to put it simply, as refined as local classical pianism gets. About time for the Globe to discover this artist.
The Waltzes let Brahms show off his penchants for rhythmic trickery within a framework, and while Liu may not be absolutely the most swinging of pianists, his threes-against-fours dance fever in these was supple enough, the fingerwork exceptional while remaining unshowy. Sonata No. 1 always sounds like a garrulous thing to me, young and in need of the composer’s later ruthless editing, not nearly so dense or dramatically interesting as the longer third piano sonata, from the same year (1853, Brahms 20). It does improve as it proceeds, yet each movement still feels windier than the one before. The composer’s experimentations here with rhythms and novel chops received total, possibly overmuch, respect.
The Bach Study No. 4, a Presto after S.1001, dissatisfied, but not clear to me was whether this was because the writing is weak or because it wasn’t well-played, or both. With the famous left hand arrangement of the Chaconne from Violin Partita S.1004, however, words almost fail, such were the power and gravity tonight of this magnificent piece. Liu well sensed when to roll chords and when to comp, and he kept the rhythm strong and the pedaling clear but not absent, a blend many online renditions are unable to achieve fully, achieving a commanding presentation, with perfect terracing, and a compelling listening experience. It was plain to see why Brahms famously confided to Clara Schumann of the Chaconne that “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earthshattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” (Certainly Schubert learned from the original’s heartstopping moment of modulation to the major.) Liu’s right hand lay relaxed on his leg, motionless throughout, which I’ve never seen before. He always appears one unperturbed pianist, and then the hands and fingers start, seamlessly, confident and strong and natural, without spectacle. (In the past, I have heard Liu play more crisply, with more etching, but that may be partly a combination of piano and hall.)
The Paganini Variations, two theme statements (there are two ‘books’) followed by 14 short variations, constitute an encyclopedia of technique, variety of touch, rhythm and color. Of such Lisztean difficulty are they that Clara labeled them hexed, but the critic James Huneker nailed their essence: “… fantasy wins, even if brewed in a homely Teutonic kettle.” Liu played them—every measure and every note—masterfully and with the profoundest excitement.